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US Sends Mixed Messages to UN Mission in Iraq


Scenes of liberation in Mosul, Iraq, July 2017. The US mission to the UN praised the retaking of the city by Iraq but simultaneously told the UN mission in Iraq to become more efficient even as it assists in the humanitarian catastrophe. TASNIM NEWS AGENCY/CREATIVE COMMONS

Since the liberation of the Iraqi city of Mosul in early July, United Nations officials and diplomats in New York have weighed in on the crucial stabilization process for the ruined city. Part of the voices included, of course, the United States diplomatic mission to the UN.

Those commenting on Mosul’s newfound freedom championed the value of the UN mission to Iraq in helping to resuscitate Iraq’s second-largest city after the Iraqi military took it back from the three-year grip of ISIS, the Islamic State.

At the same time, however, the US declared that the UN mission in Iraq, established in 2003 to help the new Iraqi government find its footing after the US invaded to oust President Saddam Hussein, needed to become more efficient.

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During a Security Council meeting just days after Mosul’s liberation was announced, the US deputy ambassador, Michele Sison, expressed her country’s support for Unami, the UN assistance mission for Iraq. Sison has been regularly filling in for Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, who comes to Council meetings about once a week.

“The United States salutes UNAMI’s role in engaging the Government of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and other stakeholders on national reconciliation,” Sison said on the day the Council extended the mission’s mandate for another year.

After saluting Unami, Sison also celebrated the addition to the resolution of a “third-party consultancy to identify efficiencies and delineate responsibilities between UNAMI and the UN Country Team” — looking at the mission’s operations itself. The cost of hiring outside expertise was not included in the resolution nor is it available on the US mission or UN websites. Emails to the spokesman of the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, and to the press office of the US mission about the review went unanswered as of July 28.

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Sison voiced high hopes for the new review process, to be done by October, saying it would set a “gold standard for improving efficiency and accountability in the field.”

Days later, Jan Kubis, a Slovakian and the head of Unami, and Lise Grande, the deputy chief and humanitarian coordinator for the mission, addressed the UN and the media about the new needs of the mission — both institutional and financial — as it assists Iraq in Mosul.

“The historic liberation of Mosul should not conceal the fact that the road ahead is extremely challenging,” Kubis told the Security Council on July 17. The mission, he said, is entering a “new phase” focused on “national resettlement and reconciliation through consultations with Iraqi stakeholders,” including female Iraqi lawmakers and civil society.

Kubis also briefed the Council on the mission’s plan to address gross human-rights violations in Mosul. That plan could ostensibly encompass documenting information about the women and girls who were held as sex slaves by ISIS in Mosul.

“Given the large-scale of serious crimes, UNAMI is pursuing a strategy at the national level with a view of allowing domestic courts to have jurisdiction over international crimes,” Kubis said. This includes establishing special courts and dovetailing with international efforts to gather evidence of atrocity crimes committed by ISIS.

Grande, who is American, held a press conference on the same day, based in Iraq, echoing that the work of Unami has only just begun. More direct than Kubis, Grande emphasized the need for money to resettle nearly a million people displaced by the fighting in Mosul.

“When the Mosul operation concluded, the appeal we had launched at the beginning of the year was only 43 percent funded,” Grande said. At this stage, Unami was asking the international community to donate money to assist “people who are outside their homes and help them return voluntarily, in dignity and safely so they can begin to start their lives.”

According to Grande, the Iraq government and the Kurdish regional government contribute 75 to 80 percent of the mission’s humanitarian funding. After calculating how many people need assistance, how much that will cost and how much the Iraqi and Kurdish governments will finance, Grande said that Unami was asking the international community for the difference in a “high-priority appeal” — $985 million for the year to resettle Mosul’s internally displaced people — a barebones amount, she called it. So far, $440 million has come in.

Grande noted that several UN member states have informally agreed to provide more money, including Britain, the US and Germany, in addition to the European Union. She emphasized that, unlike other appeals, this mission needs to be fully funded.

“Stabilization in Mosul will be the most difficult stabilization process the United Nations has ever faced,” she said.

While the US expressed full support of Unami’s mission after the retaking of Mosul, part of the message conveyed in a meeting with Nikki Haley and Jan Kubis on July 18 pointed to the mission’s efficiency.

Haley, according to the short, vague message her press office sent to media, noted the “need to streamline UNAMI to ensure it remains fit for purpose.” Although it is unclear what “streamlining” means, it’s often a euphemism for cost cutting. Unami’s budget for 2016 was about $119 million; for 2017, it is $117 million.

Like all bureaucracies, there is surely fat to cut. Unami’s travel budget alone for top officials last year totaled $1.7 million; then there are smaller items, like subscriptions for national and international papers — “BBC online access and monitoring” — itemized in the annual budget, worth $72,000.

A pattern is emerging: when a UN official who is working in hot spots or other complicated settings is summoned to meet Haley in her high-rise office at the US mission, the conversation will invariably strike this note: do your work with less money.

On July 19, Haley met with Sigrid Kaag, the UN special coordinator for Lebanon. According to another short message released by the US mission press office (and not posted on the mission’s website), Haley emphasized to Kaag a political need: “for the international community to apply more pressure on Hizballah to disarm and cease its destabilizing behavior, especially toward Israel.”

Haley also noted that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, or Unifil, should be fully engaged in addressing Hezbollah’s threat “according to UNIFIL’s mandate.” (Some UN diplomats are whispering that Unifil is Haley’s next target to cut, as she pledges to do for most UN peacekeeping and political missions.)

Haley’s message to Kaag jibes with her brief speech in the Security Council on July 25, when she blamed Hezbollah for the unrest in the Middle East, during a session in which the other Council members concentrated on the latest escalation of violence in Jerusalem. (Haley came in 15 minutes late to the meeting, as the UN envoy for the Middle East was reading his speech.)

But Unifil’s mandate does not mention addressing terrorist threats in the region. The mission was established in 1978 to “confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon” and to aid the Lebanese government to ensure peace and security. Its mandate was amended in 2006 to better aid the transition of the south from Israel to the armed forces of Lebanon.

The only possible language in the mandate that could be vaguely interpreted to include addressing Hezbollah is that Unifil will “monitor the cessation of hostilities.” The resolution also authorizes Unifil to “take all necessary action in areas of deployment of its forces and as it deems within its capabilities to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind.”

Is Haley using this reference to include Hezbollah, which the US, Israel and some Western allies in the Middle East consider a terrorist operation? Her press release didn’t say.

At the July 25 Security Council meeting on the “Middle East and the Palestine Question,” Haley’s focus on Hezbollah came out of the blue, as she skimmed past the speeches by the Israeli and the Palestinian delegations detailing their versions of recent violence in Jerusalem.

Instead, Haley denounced Hezbollah’s “illegal” weapons buildup and lashed out at the Security Council because it “cannot even bring itself to use the word ‘Hizballah’ in recent resolutions or statements on Lebanon.”

“Many here are happy to name Israel, time after time, but Hizballah is somehow off limits,” she said, sticking to her vow to change the discourse in the UN away from Israel-bashing to other problems in the Middle East, such as “Iran and its partner militia, Lebanese Hizballah.”

An Iranian diplomat said after the Council session that Haley’s focus on Hezbollah was “shortsighted.” Americans, he said, “believe they can change course in the UN by replacing Israel” by accusing Hezbollah (the more general spelling of the group) as the culprit in the region.

“Hezbollah is legitimate, working with the government [in Lebanon], defending their land,” the Iranian said. (It is part of the current coalition government.) The terrorists committing atrocities — like Al Qaeda and Taliban — are the groups the US should be working on, he added.

Liu Jieyi, China’s ambassador to the UN, said after the Council meeting, when asked whether Haley’s redirection to Hezbollah could alter discussions at the UN on the Middle East, he responded, “I didn’t say it.”

This column, Nikki Haley Watch, covers the US ambassador’s relationship to the UN and other relevant news. Tell us what you think:


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Kacie Candela is an assistant editor for PassBlue and a news anchor and reporter with WFUV, a public radio station in the Bronx, N.Y., where she covers the UN and other beats. Her work has won various awards from the New York State Associated Press Association, New York State Broadcasters Association, PRNDI, and the Alliance for Women in Media.

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