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Former UN Mediators Aim to Make Mideast Peace Work Home-Grown

Jamal Benomar at the Chatham House think tank as the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, March 2013. He and other former UN mediators have founded a conflict-resolution group to help Mideast-North Africa peacemakers better realize their ambitions in their region. 

A high-powered cast of former senior United Nations mediators from the Middle East and North Africa have founded a conflict-resolution organization, the International Center for Dialogue Initiatives, or ICDI, to mitigate the failures of foreign peace brokers and enable home-grown peacemakers to become more influential in their region, the founders say.

Jamal Benomar, a former UN envoy for Yemen and the center’s chair, spoke with PassBlue by phone from the New York metro area about the new venture. “The whole idea,” he said, “is to encourage the governments, intergovernmental organizations and civil society in the region to take more responsibility in addressing their own problems, instead of an exclusive reliance on outside powers . . . who all have their own interests.”

Benomar is a high-level diplomat with the Moroccan mission to the UN, yet he says that his relationship with the country is “complicated.” For example, he was tortured by the regime as a prisoner of conscience decades ago.

The new center’s eight founders include seven former heads of UN peace missions as well as Wided Bouchamaoui, an ex-president of the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts who is a co-recipient of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. The new organization is the brainchild of Benomar, a Moroccan and British citizen who left the UN in 2017.

The other founders are: Ibrahima Fall, a former Senegalese foreign minister and UN coordinator for the African Great Lakes region; Youssef Mahmoud, a Tunisian who formerly headed the UN peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic and Chad; Haile Menkerios, an Eritrean diplomat who has served as UN envoy to the African Union; Tarek Mitri, a Lebanese academic who was his country’s foreign minister and UN envoy to Libya; Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, an ex-foreign minister of Mauritania and UN envoy to Somalia; and Leila Zerrougui, an Algerian human-rights advocate who most recently led the UN peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Only two of the founders, Bouchamaoui and Zerrougui, are women, reflecting the overall gender imbalance at the top rung of UN peacemaking leadership, Zerrougui told PassBlue in an interview from her home in Algiers. Of the 37 current peace missions, fewer than one in three is led by a woman.

The founding group is assisted by a staff of academic experts and other former UN officials. They are working remotely as the center gears up to open offices in Beirut, Tunis and New York City, Benomar said. The founders are paying for the organization’s operation, but they intend to launch fund-raising drives while maintaining the center’s impartiality, he added.

Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East and North Africa director at the International Crisis Group think tank, welcomed the group’s initiative as he spoke with PassBlue from Brussels. “In the last 10 years, we’ve seen more and more conflicts breaking out [in the region], both at the national level and more local levels, and mediation is really the best way forward,” he said. “If people of the calibre of Jamal Benomar can help with that, great. There’s a real need for it.”

The conflicts plaguing the Middle East and North Africa, known as the Mena region, are marked by high degrees of foreign involvement, with outside powers backing different warring parties while attempting to double as impartial mediators. This dichotomy has created a knot of internationalized conflicts — notably in Libya, Syria and Yemen — alongside a dizzying array of peacemaking efforts that operate at cross purposes and often ignore local populations.

The center, its website says, will first focus on Libya, Syria and Yemen, where armed conflicts “continue unabated due largely to failing peace processes and no credible diplomatic initiatives from within the region are underway.”

Yet some regional powers are doing positive mediation, like Oman, which recently revealed it has been facilitating Yemeni peace talks in Muscat. Other players, however, come from outside the region, like France and Russia, which have supported the rebel Libyan army commander Khalifa Haftar.

“Everybody is involved in these conflicts,” Benomar said, “except for the local people who are going to live with the consequences.”

Maged Alkholidy, a Yemeni peace activist who spoke with PassBlue from the besieged city of Taiz, said that ordinary Yemenis are left in the dark while foreign diplomats haggle over their fate. “We follow the news but we don’t have concrete information,” he said. “We know nothing.”

That needs to change, Benomar and his colleagues contend. If peace settlements are to endure, local people, from official leaders to civil society — including women — must have pride of place in designing them, the new center’s founders say.

“You will never get a sustainable peace unless the people who are affected by the war, and who are sustaining one or another party, are involved, their problems addressed, and they feel like they own the peace process,” Zerrougui said.

The center takes its inspiration from Tunisia, the country where the first sparks of the Arab Spring were ignited and it underwent that transformative experience more peacefully than other nations in the region. Tunisia did it without outside involvement.

“Tunisians by themselves found ways to resolve their difficulties, and their transition did not turn sour and bloody as is the case in Libya, Syria and Yemen,” Benomar said. That is not to say that Tunisia offers a model to replicate elsewhere — the country’s political features are too distinct — and it is struggling as a fledgling democracy. But it provides an example, two of Benomar’s colleagues noted in separate interviews.

Civil society actors like those in Tunisia that helped steer it through its Arab Spring unrest in 2015 — including the group that Bouchamaoui led — can be found in other countries but are often marginalized, Zerrougui said. “You have the actors on the ground but they don’t have space,” she said. The new center aims to identify and support civil society groups to exert more influence, working with governmental representatives.

“We are from the UN, that’s where we grew up, but at the same time we are from this broad region,” Benomar said, “so the insights that we have, they’re a combination of knowledge of the region and knowledge also of the international system, how it works and all its deficiencies.”

This article was updated on April 27, 2021, to include information that Benomar works for the Moroccan mission to the UN.

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Dali ten Hove is a reporting officer in the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He writes for PassBlue in a personal capacity. He was the researcher on the memoir of former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World,” and was part of the UN’s 75th-anniversary team. He has worked in peace-building with Cordaid in The Hague and has served on the boards of the UN Associations of the Netherlands and the UK and has consulted for the World Federation of UNAs. He has a master’s degree in international relations from Oxford University.

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