An International Career: via Podcast

Andrew Koltun of the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS) interviewed George Somerwill  in the summer of 2013 regarding his extensive and varied career with the United Nations and other international organizations.

Guided by his host, George weaves together for his listeners the fabric of his forty year career, skillfully intertwined with strands of danger, frustration and accomplishment. His story is intriguing, in particular when considering how different a life he has lived from the average Canadian.

 Listen to or download the podcast at this link. Then, engage him on twitter with your questions and feedback – @UN4All.

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Keynote: An Innocent at Large

Recently, George Somerwill was asked to provide the keynote presentation for the event entitled, Sudan and South Sudan: Contributing to Conflict Prevention and Post-conflict Stabilization. Both the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Laurier University, located in Waterloo, Ontario, in addition to the Academic Council on the United Nations System and the Department of National Defence, sponsored the two-day public event.

George offered a personal narrative of his work within both the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea and the United Nations Mission in Sudan, including moments from his time spent as BBC and CBC journalist and humanitarian worker. His analysis touched upon the involvement of Canada in the UN in addition to the insight he has developed over the years regarding Africa, Canada and the UN.

What follows is an excerpt of his keynote presentation called, An Innocent at Large. With the UN in the Horn of Africa. One Canadian’s Story.

KEYNOTE EXCERPT by George Somerwill

SONY DSCI would like to say a few words about Canada’s past and present role within the United Nations, and specifically within UN peacekeeping. As I mentioned earlier, Canada has a storied past in peacekeeping. Lester Pearson’s original concept during the1956 Suez crisis – when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt – of having a ‘thin blue line’ of UN blue helmeted troops standing between combatants has not changed, although operationally it has moved into the 21st century of course!

We all know that Pearson’s original concept called for Canadian troops to make up the thin blue line, but the Egyptians led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, rejected that, and thus the idea of a multinational peacekeeping force was born. Canadians subsequently participated in UNEF, UNDOF (Syria) UMOGIP (India and Pakistan), UNFICYP (Cyprus) and so on, right on through the decades up to and including UNMEE (Ethiopia and Eritrea)and more recently and in a limited way, in Sudan.

Many people ask me why Canadians are less involved now than ever before in peacekeeping. In spite of what the media will tell you about the political reasons, there is a very simple financial reason.

The main donors, called Troop Contributing Countries or Police Contributing Countries (TCC/PCC), to the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations  (UN-DPKO) now are Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nigeria and increasingly, China. Each one of those countries is known to have a huge standing army and police force. The UN pays each TCC/PCC a flat rate per Force member or police officer who participates in a Peacekeeping (PK) Mission. This amount is in turn based on what the donor government pays its military or police officers. And in most cases, when troops or police go to the UN, each government makes a “profit”. In other words – sending troops to a UN PK Force helps to finance its standing army or police force. (more…)

Innocent at Large: With the UN in the Horn of Africa – One Canadian’s Story

United Nations vehicle traveling in Kassala, North Sudan, near the Eritrea Border. Photo: Rosio Godomar

United Nations vehicle traveling in Kassala, North Sudan, near the Eritrea Border. Photo: Rosio Godomar

The crisis in Syria has diverted the public’s attention away from two countries, Sudan and South Sudan, where conflict is still ongoing despite the self-determination of the south and efforts of the United Nations and the African Union. (more…)

The United Nations and Canada’s Role

Recently, George Somerwill was invited to give the keynote address to the Canadian Future Model United Nations on behalf of the Vancouver Branch of the United Nations Association in Canada. The following is an excerpt from this March 8th address.

In the more-than-six decades since the founding of the United Nations (UN), Canada has had a long history of supporting the organization.  The UN needed Canada and was very happy for our support.  And I would certainly add that given the pace of change in the world and the issues the world faces  – Canada and individual Canadians need the UN.

Over the years since the UN was founded in 1946, Canada and Canadians  have played an important role in the organization. The UN Charter was partly drafted by a Canadian academic and Human Rights lawyer – John Peters Humphrey.  Dr. Humphrey headed the very first UN Human Rights body in 1947. (more…)

Ongoing Events in Algeria and Mali

The situation in the north-west part of Africa is still far from its end-game. 

Three years ago Canadian diplomat and former Canadian Permanent Representative to the UN, Robert Fowler was taken hostage in Niger, and later held captive in Mali before his negotiated release. Since then, Ambassador Fowler and others familiar with the region, have warned that a huge swathe of North Africa from the Mediterranean coastlines of Algeria and Libya through Mali and Niger, was being destabilized by insurgents. With the exception of Libya, those countries were former French colonies, but the overthrow of Muammar Ghadafi in that country and the formation of a weak government, have played into the hands of those with their own agendas in north-west Africa .  Undoubtedly French intelligence was also aware of what was going on in their backyard, but Western governments and media, with very few exceptions almost completely ignored the story.

Two events of the past few days have combined to shake western governments out of their complacency. While details are sketchy, on a remote part of the Algeria/Libya border, a group of insurgents attacked an Algerian gas processing plant staffed by both foreign and Algerian nationals and took a large number of foreigners hostage.  Predictably the Algerian government responded with a heavy hand, and dozens of the hostages as well as many of their captors, appear to have died.  In press interviews last week Ambassador Fowler indicated that the group which held him hostage in Mali, led by a one-eyed insurgent calling himself Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and the group who organized the attack on the Algerian gas plant, appear to be the same.  Even more interestingly some analysts have suggested that although Belmokhtar may have originally called himself an Islamist – at least when it suited him – he was in fact making his fortune through ransom money and by smuggling cigarettes and other goods.

Algeria_Map

Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The second event to appear on the international radar last week (although it has been building for months – see my blog on international events to watch during 2013) was the launching of a French military assault designed to support the weak Malian government in its attempts to reclaim the northern part of its huge territory held by – according to the West – Islamic insurgents. (more…)

Middle East, Asia, United States: More International Stories to Watch For in 2013

THE MIDDLE EAST

The issue of Syria will eventually play itself out with the departure of Bashar Al-Assad. This will happen in the short-term. Nevertheless the diplomatic anger and ill-will generated within and outside the UN by the failure of the Security Council to reach agreement to end the Syrian conflict will continue to cause long-term problems for the organization. Even if the Syrian opposition is more united at the moment than it was before, victory by the Syrian opposition may well trigger internal Sunni-Shia splits which could hamper recovery within Syria or, at worst, start another round of conflict. The split between Sunnis and Shias will remain a serious cause of internal conflict within Iraq.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the situation within Iran is another serious destabilizing factor which will be felt through 2013.  Setting aside the presence of nuclear technology within that country, an ever present threat to Israel, the fact that a majority of the Iranian population does not support the current government, means that there will always be a high level of human rights oppression.

Continued Israeli expansion within the disputed areas of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories will remain a source of tension and conflict. To quote an un-named US diplomat, the two state solution “remains on life support but is not officially dead.”

ASIA

In Asia, the main concerns will continue to be the political posturing in the China Sea between China, Japan and Taiwan over various uninhabited islands. There is every reason to believe that each of the squabbling nations has enough at stake, economically and politically, that they will not take wild risks. However, no nation having political and economic interests in the area (that is, most of the world’s major players) can fail to miss the point that China will eventually become the dominant military power in the region. This will not happen overnight but will certainly develop in coming years. (more…)

Some International Stories to Watch For in 2013

All views expressed are entirely my own.

The past year has been a rollercoaster of international stories, some of them with long-term serious implications. Others, which have grabbed media headlines around the world, may turn out to be much less important, at least in the long-term.

What international issues and stories can we expect to see developing as the new year unfolds?

CANADA AND THE WORLD

Don’t expect to see any major changes in 2013 for Canada in the international arena.  In recent years Canada has lost some international prestige, particularly within the UN, as we were always considered to be scrupulously fair in our dealings with  international issues and political players. We distanced ourselves just enough from the US and UK to show that we were not going to blindly follow everyone else’s hardline policy (e.g. invading Iraq). At the same time we championed issues where we could show our political balance (e.g. the Palestinian issue) or where we could make a difference for large numbers of people (e.g. the anti-personnel mine ban).

Current Canadian policies are currently viewed with some suspicion by many who would like to see more of our traditional fairness.  While it would be great to be proven wrong, Canada will likely continue to distance itself from the UN through 2013.

AFRICA

The big stories in Africa will be those which have so far, only gained minimum media coverage, at least in North America. The complete takeover of the northern half of the massive territory of Mali by a pro-Al-Qaeda Islamist group over the last year is a serious cause for concern which could eventually have consequences for western nations. While the numbers of rebels in northern Mali is relatively small, the huge geographic area, and the almost non-existence of the central government means that there is no resistance.

Another serious rebellion has quietly been occurring, ignored by the mainstream media, in the Central African Republic. Negotiations between anti-government rebels who feel they are being ignored, and the central government, are taking place, brokered by the African Union (AU). These negotiations are on-going but short to medium term future economic development in the CAR, as well as human rights and good governance are seriously under threat.

In Mali, the former colonial power, France is working with the regional power, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to put together an army which might be able to wrest back control of Northern Mali. While all NATO nations, including Canada, have denied that they will participate in any way in this action, it is unlikely that any ECOWAS force could succeed without outside support. US support to ECOWAS could come from outside the NATO umbrella through AFRICOM (Africa Command) and through the provision of intelligence from unmanned drones.

Check my next post for commentary on the Middle East, Asia and the United States.