A distinguished peacemaker in the United Nations – Ambassador Mohamed Sahnoun

For almost forty years Ambassador Sahnoun, a native of Algeria, has travelled all over Africa devoting his life to making peace among peoples. He says of himself: I started my career with the African Union and immediately I found myself involved in conflict resolutions. In the 1960s and 1970s, many African countries became independent states. Quickly they found themselves confronted with border problems. The [frontiers] had been traced by the colonial powers, and these did not take into account socio-cultural factors, ethnicity, and so on. It became urgent to find solutions and to convince the different countries to avoid conflict and eventually to respect the borders as they had been established by the colonial powers. Gradually, we arrived at agreements where the African countries accepted the borders such as they were, but also respecting minorities. Then came internal conflicts. Here we had to implement mediation and try to find a solution. It started with Biafra, and then it went on from there. I gained experience that proved itself to be very useful later, and therefore the successive Secretary-Generals of the United Nations called on me so that I could take care of these problems.
Due to his efforts many lives have been saved and peace restored among nations and peoples. His list of merits is long. Let us simply mention that, amongst other posts, he has served as Advisor to the President of Algeria, Deputy Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity, Deputy Secretary-General of the League of Arab States in charge of the Arab-Africa dialogue, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General on the Ethiopian/Eritrean conflict, Joint Representative of the UN and the OAU in the Great Lakes Region and Central Africa, Special Representative of the UN to Somalia.
You were involved in the Sudanese peace negotiations. What can you tell us about them?
I must admit that the processesn the discussions, the meetings, etc.nthat finally led to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement were long, difficult and rather complex.
As a matter of fact, I was already involved in the Sudanese question when I was Deputy-Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity. As early as 1972 we negotiated the first peace agreement between North and South Sudan. This was the first signed peace agreement, and this agreement granted autonomy to South Sudan. Unfortunately, this agreement was not really respected and eleven years later, in 1984, the war started again.
At the time, there was no real mobilization from the international community in order to support the people of the South in constructing their autonomy. We totally neglected this issue and it was obviously not a priority for the international community. The result was that the situation became more and more difficult and complex. Then, the President of Sudan, President Nimeri, put an end to the 1972 agreement and, as a result, war broke out in 1983na war that was to last for almost twenty years.
The negotiations began in the late 1990s and we had, of course, lots of difficulties. Negotiations were broken off and then we had to convince the two parties that the talks should restart. The two parties were always imposing conditions and, meanwhile, the war went on. The destruction was massive, with lots of refugees and internally displaced persons. The people suffered terribly during the war.
Often we were obliged to ask neighbouring states, to put pressure on the two parties, but the pressure also came from the African Union and United Nations.
In addition, we had to carry out confidence-building. To do this we invited different experts; for instance, in the field of petroleum, since this is one of the most important resources in Sudan. Oil is found right on the border between the North and the South. So we brought in different experts who told the two sides about the importance of oil production and how exploitation could only be carried out if there was peace between the two parties.
We also explained to them how the federal system could be very useful for Sudan, as it is the biggest country in Africa. If a good federal form of government was set up, it could become a reference and an example for other African countries. We brought in specialists from the Institute des ?tudes f?d?rales de Fribourg, who spoke with the different parties. We also set up conferences in Neuch?tel so that they could see how the federal system worked, not only in Switzerland but also in countries like Canada, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, etc. For instance, in Quebec there could, in theory, be a referendum and that state could become totally independent of Canada if the inhabitants voted for it. All this was done to build up the confidence of the different partners.
We told them, for instance: « First try the national union, and see if it works. If it does not work, you can always split. » In order to achieve this you need lots of confidence-building.
How do you find the ideas, such as setting up a federation?
When the Secretary-General asked me to become his special representative and to help in mediating a conflict such as Sudan, he did so on the basis of my experience. As I mentioned earlier, I had carried out work for the African Union and my special field was the peaceful resolution of conflicts. That is the reason why I found myself working in this field since the beginning. Early on, we had border conflicts to resolve in Africa, such the C?te d’Ivoire and Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. I was often involved in this type of work, and it was because of this experience that the Secretary-General asked me to work in this field.
Through this type of work you acquire experience. You hold discussions with people and you listen to them. The people trust you if you listen to them. Despite the fact that you may know the problem very well, that you have read all the documentation, etc., you have always to listennlisten to the psychological angle from which the parties present their cases in order to better understand the lack of confidence, the lack of security, etc. and try to resolve the situation.
So it is very complex. It takes time and you have to have the necessary patience. You also have to be able to give examples of other similar cases, and show how these countries managed to find a way out of their problems. You encourage the parties to try new solutions.
In 1992, I was the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Somalia, where I found the different clans fighting among themselves. Of course, we tried to make them understand how they would benefit from bringing an end to the fighting. It is this experience I tried to bring with me when I worked together with my friend, the Kenyan General Lazarus Sumbeiywo, who was the chief mediator for the countries in the region. Unfortunately, our work was halted by the American invasion.
In situations where the two parties remain firm on their positions, how do you manage to unblock the situation?
Your really have to be able to show them that it is in their best interests to do so. As I mentioned earlier, you have to convince all the parties involved that they should speak with one single voice. That is very important. Often you have not only the mediators, but also what is called the « contact group », consisting of, for instance, different countries such as Norway, the United Kingdom, etc. Or it could be permanent members of the Security Councilnit all depends on the problem to be solved. All these delegations are special representatives and they form the so-called contact groups, keeping abreast of the negotiations. They are there to assist the negotiations either in financial, material or other ways. It is extremely important that this group speaks with one voice, and that the two opposing parties do not listen to other opinions. Everybody has to push towards peace. It is equally important that the two parties understand the benefits of peace: better economic life; better governance; respect for human rights; etc. You need lots of patience and pressure from friendly countries.
When you visit Sudan today, are you treated as a « hero », as you are the one who brought peace to their country?
The people respect and appreciate the work of the mediatorsnthat is obvious. We still have good contacts there, and we maintain respect for each other. This also gives us the possibility to make contact again if problems arise and we can remind the people about the spirit under which we worked.
There is also the matter of friendship. As I have had a long experience both with the African Union and the United Nations, people have seen what I have done, and they know that I have no other interest than the interest of the population itself.
Geneva 1 Dec 2006 Mohamed Sahnoun, new President of Initiaitves of Change-International
Cornelio Sommaruga hands over the Presidency of the Initiatives of Change – International Associations to Mohamed Sahnoun on 1st January 2007.
The Association was created in 2002 to federate different national bodies of Initiatives of Change around the word and represent them at the UN and other international organizations.
As the new President Mr. Sahnoun brings a vast knowledge of the developing work and a commitment to peace-making.