Sunday, 26 October 2014

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Interview of the month: Kaarina Immonen

Immonen 1

This month we interview a Deputy Special Representative in one of the worst crisis hotspots in the world – the Central African Republic. We have talked to Mrs Kaarina Immonen, who is a Finnish citizen, although born in a village in Tanzania. Her extensive career within the UN has taken her to Congo, Cambodia, Russia and Rwanda, among others – and today she is dealing with what was at first one of the world’s forgotten crisis, but today has made the world news because of the spiraling sectarian violence. We asked what exactly a DSR does, the future of the CAR, and of course our usual introductory question:

How did you end up working for the UN?

Having completed my master’s degree at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, with a particular interest in development issues, I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to join the UN as a Junior Professional Officer sponsored by the Government of Finland and assigned to Congo Brazzaville. As I was born in a remote village of Tanzania shortly after the country's independence, this background may have contributed to my eagerness to work in different environments and circumstances. With assignments in places like Rwanda, Cambodia, Georgia, or Russia, including the South Caucasus, conflict prevention and crisis recovery have been an important part of the activities I have been engaged in.

You were appointed Deputy Special Representative in December 2012. What, exactly, does a DSR do? What are your working days like?

Working in an integrated mission, and being also the Humanitarian and Development Coordinator, in addition to the Resident Representative of UNDP, days are very tightly planned but need to be constantly adjusted as we move along, given the environment, which is to a large extent unpredictable. In the current context, the key priority is security, where we support the Disarmement, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) and /Security Sector Reform (SSR) process. On the political transition, reestablishing the State Authority with the redeployment of local administration outside of Bangui is one key element, along with the planning of the elections, and support to the justice system. Finally, regarding the humanitarian tragedy, the worse ever in the history of the country, we have prepared an emergency response plan for 2014 seeking US$250,000 million funding to deliver the urgent needs faced by a suffering population. At the same time, we have to plant the seeds of recovery, looking at issues of community protection and resilience, reconciliation and social cohesion.

Immonen 2 resizedIn practice, I would dedicate about one day a week to field visits, most recently in Bossangoa, where 50,000 IDPs are gathered on one site in appalling conditions, in a tense security environment, and to whom the assistance by humanitarian partners represents a lifeline. Regarding the need to end violence against women, an awareness raising campaign was organized recently in the context of the international day to stop violence against women, with Central African women highly mobilized to go around Bangui with trucks to talk to the population. Unfortunately, one team of 25 women was arrested by armed elements and brought to detention without any specific reasons, which required an immediate intervention. Going on the site of the detention, I also spoke to one of the Ministers, who intervened himself and came together with the president of the transition to release the women and express regret for the misunderstanding. Given the support provided by the French presence in securing the country and thus allowing for improved humanitarian access, regular meetings with the representatives of the Sangaris operations are important to conduct adequate consultations and coordination. Equally, given the importance of the religious leaders in promoting peace and dialogue, regular interaction with them is important. Coordination meetings in various sectors are necessary to provide efficient solutions to the crisis. With the time difference, it is towards the end of the day that New York comes on board for consultations, planning and reporting. As we work 7 by 7, one of the difficulties is to keep track of time, the other challenge is the curfew, which currently obliges us to be back home at 18h00 and thus shortens the day significantly.            

You have long and solid experience from working for the UN in different countries – the Congo, Rwanda, Viet Nam… what was it like to arrive in the Central African Republic?

It has been a very saddening experience to see how a country that was on the path to stability and development, with a population aspiring to peace, relapses into an unprecedented crisis and a complex emergency situation, with the despair, suffering and human tragedy that extreme violence brings along. Under such circumstances, there is a strong motivation and dedication by the UN staff to do its utmost to try and assist and to contribute to solutions. Despite the traumatism of this year’s experience and the fear, which continues to be the prevailing feeling, the courage and commitment of national staff to be engaged and deliver is remarkable. In this context, I would appeal to the international community to further mobilize to help the population of the CAR.

You succeeded another Nordic, Mr Bo Shack from Denmark. Is there a special Nordic contribution or “touch” to the mission in CAR?

This is a coincidence, as we are 44 different nationalities represented within the UN in CAR, and the diversity is one of the assets of the UN presence. In terms of contributions from Nordic countries, let me highlight the solidarity of Nordic countries towards the people of CAR, which is also noticeable in the significant level of funding made available for the UN activities in the country.    

There was some progress in reaching an agreement on disarmament in CAR back in 2012. What went wrong?

We can say that the DDR program launched after the signing of the Libreville Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2008 worked well for some time and in some areas of the country where it has actually achieved results. This is particularly the case in the North-West (Paoua, Markounda , Ngaoundaye and Bocaranga ) and the North-Central (Kaga-Bandoro, Bouca and Kabo) where a total of about 6,000 ex- combatants have been demobilized and 4,000 of them supported by reintegration programs. The accession in 2012 of the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP), a national rebel group, to the Libreville Agreements paved the way to the launch of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration in the northeast of the country.

However, we must admit that this program has encountered a number of challenges which delayed its effective implementation in the areas mentioned above, and especially prevented its successful extension to the whole country including in the northeast. Actually, beyond merely technical problems peculiar to this type of program, the major difficulty encountered was the inability to establish a climate of mutual trust, required for the success of a DDR process. This problem was due essentially to the absence of an inclusive political dialogue, yet provided for in the Libreville Agreements, and subsequent failing to consider political demands of the politico-military groups.

In a word, while the DDR process has been successfully completed in the North-West of the country, it is unfortunate that its implementation was delayed in the North-East. If it had been conducted in the North-East, this would probably have helped in preventing the violence we have today in the Central African Republic.

What steps should now be taken to improve the situation in CAR? Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?

We must admit that, unfortunately, the Central African Republic has faced coups d’etats. To date, most of the CAR’s heads of state fought their way to power through armed rebellions.  However, this is the very first time that the country is experiencing a prolonged crisis of this magnitude, with dramatic interfaith implications.

Naturally, the ongoing military phase consisting of disarmament of ex-combatants and their cantonment and ending violence against civilians is paramount. Nevertheless, while MISCA (African forces) and the French troops can reduce the tensions and security problems associated with armed groups and the proliferation of weapons, they cannot tackle the problem of poor governance which lies at the heart of CAR's problems.

To improve the situation in CAR this military phase should be followed by a political phase of dialogue, reconciliation and confidence-building, leading to open, peaceful and democratic elections thus allowing Central Africans to choose men and women capable of building a nation.Then the international community will be able to assist the country with the development of key political, security and justice institutions that will promote strong governance mechanisms. In this respect, with the support of the UN system and the international community, the transitional government developed a roadmap in line with these prerequisites, which if well implemented rapidly and with dedication, should show us some light at the end of the tunnel.

So, the first step to be taken to improve the situation is for the citizens of this country to realize that they need to come together and iron out their differences in order to build a nation. The solution is therefore, above all, in the hands of Central Africans themselves. They must act quickly and firmly, and we are here to support them on the road to restoring their dignity and to rehabilitating the country.

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