Interview with Martin Kobler, SRSG for Iraq and Head of UNAMI

In this interview, Martin Kobler, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq and the Head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), said that decades of UN Security Council sanctions imposed on Iraq created a negative impression of the institution among Iraqis, but that is changing. He said the deaths of 24 UN staff members, including the then-SRSG, in Baghdad in 2003 was a turning point. “I think this paved the way to an image of a new UN,” he said.

One problem for the UN in Iraq is making itself known. “Whenever I am at checkpoints, and we are asked where we are from, we say, ‘We are from the UN,’ and then people at the checkpoints tend to answer, ‘Oh yes, from the US.’”

Mr. Kobler discussed what UNAMI is doing in Iraq to assist the Iraqi government and help the Iraqi people, particularly in the areas of youth and environment.

“Fifty percent of the country is below the age of 18,” he said. However, most Iraqi youth are seeking to go abroad, causing “brain drain.”

Part of why they choose to leave is because they fear the existing terrorist threats. “Every day, 10 to 15 people still die on the streets of Baghdad,” he said.

Another reason is a lack of job opportunities. “There is not a good investment climate in the country. There is no private enterprise there which could bring the country ahead,” he said. A bad education system, with universities teaching curricula that date back to the 1980s, and rampant corruption in the public sector’s job market also discourage youth, he added.

“My appeal is to the government: give private companies more space, reduce red tape, reduce bureaucracy, have a one-stop shop for investors… These are framework conditions the government has to create in order to stop the brain drain,” he explained.

Mr. Kobler, who had just come from a sand-storm conference arranged by UNEP and the Kuwaiti Ministry of Environment, also hoped to bring environmental issues onto UNAMI’s political agenda.

In Iraq, the number of sand and dust storms has doubled in the past five years, partly due to climate change, and party due to environmental degradation.

“The practical idea is, together with UNEP in Nairobi, to create, with real money, huge green belts from Anbar province at the border of Jordan, down to Karbala, and down to the Kuwaiti border,” he said.

“I think it’s very important for the future generation, and one has to tackle it now,” he added.

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Warren Hoge: Our guest today in the Global Observatory is Martin Kobler, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq and Head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, known as UNAMI. He has been in this job since August of last year.

Martin Kobler is a seasoned German diplomat, with critical experience in the region he now works in; he is an Arabic speaker, and served as Germany’s ambassador to Egypt and to Iraq. He was also Special Deputy Representative in the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, known as UNAMA.

Martin, first of all, there have been a lot of foreigners meddling in Iraq over the past decade. How is the UN seen there by Iraqis? Are you another foreign force that they would just as soon have leave and go away? Or do people have a more positive impression of the UN than they did, say, of the US?

Martin Kobler: Well, this is one of the major challenges. First of all, thank you very much for letting me be here on your program–it’s great to be here. Now, the UN has a problem to make itself known. Whenever I am at checkpoints, and we are asked where we are from, we say, “We are from the UN,” and then people at the checkpoints tend to answer, “Oh yes, from the US.” Then we, of course, see that we are not very much known. This is the first step: to make ourselves known.

And then comes the question of those who know what we are, what we are doing, what is our image. We did a small opinion poll, an inquiry the other day, and we asked on a scale of 1-10: Where does the UN stand? Where do others stand? So the winners of this inquiry were tribal structures; they were the Marja-i in Najaf, they were the religious leaders of the country with around 8 on the scale of 10. Even Prime Minister Maliki and the government was with 5.6. And the UN was with 3.2. So the image–this was of course a frustrating kind of inquiry–but it was very encouraging, because we have to do something to improve our image.

Now, the UN has a history in Iraq, and sometimes we are told, “You are responsible. You are responsible for dead babies during the Oil-for-Food [campaign]. You are responsible for much of the misery inflicted upon Iraq.” Now, this is an image we can correct. And I think we managed over the last years, in particular from 2003 on, where 24 of our colleagues were killed in Baghdad, including the SRSG. I think this paved the way to an image of a new UN.

And we try with communication means–we are on Facebook nowadays, and we are twittering, and we are using all the modern means for the urban population–in particular for the young population–to make ourselves known. The country team–agency-sponsored programs–are another contributing factor to do good things this time, and not to be seen as paralyzing the country, but to work for the benefit of the country and for the people of Iraq, as it is enshrined in our mandate.

WH: Martin, you mentioned young people; many of them have left, many of them wish to leave–something of a youth “brain drain” threatening Iraq right now. What are the reasons they give for wanting to leave?

MK: Well, there are several reasons–the problem of youth is very close to my heart. Because our interlocutors are usually elderly men above the age of 60, and I constantly ask myself–also being around 60–where is the next generation? Are they living in the country or not? And the answer is yes, they are living in the country. Fifty percent of the country is below the age of 18. Every second Iraqi citizen of the 32 million Iraqis–16 million people–are young. Now, you put a very good question: Why do they want to leave the country? And this is something I always see in discussions, that the first question is, “How can I go abroad? How can I get a scholarship to study abroad?”

Now, the reasons they give, there are three or four reasons: The first one is security – the physical security. There are still existing terrorist threats. You cannot be sure whether you are–back home, if you go to university or whether you are the victim of a terror attack –every day 10-15 people still die on the streets of Baghdad. Now, this is of course much better, in terms of what we have seen in 2006-2007 where we had 800-1,000 people dying per day, and now there are 10-15. But we all should have zero tolerance on terror victims; every one of them, be it man, woman or child, dying by terror attacks on the streets of Baghdad in Iraq, is one terror victim too many.

The second one is the lack of job opportunities. There is not a good investment climate in the country. There is no private enterprise there which could bring the country ahead. There is still relatively bad educational system in the country–universities with old curricula dating back to the ‘80s. And the next point is the question of bureaucracy and corruption: If you want to have a job within the public sector–which is still, unfortunately I must say, the overwhelming sector offering job opportunities–you must have good relations, and there is a lot of corruption in the country.

Now, all these are critical things one can quote on Iraq, but one should not forget that the country looks back to a very difficult past, with three terrible wars which left many people dead—Iran, Iraq and Kuwait, the 2003 events. On the other side, we have decades of sanctions before 2003 which leaves the country economically and infrastructure-wise devastated.

However, this is now, I hope, on a good way, but there are a lot of things that still have to be done: abolishment of red tape, prosecution of corruption. Iraq is a rich country, it is not like Afghanistan, which is really a poor country, where you need donors’ conferences. But in Iraq, you do not need it–there is money around, and this money has to be used in a good way for the benefit of the people. My appeal–and this is not strictly my mandate of course–but my appeal is to the government: Give private companies more space, reduce red tape, reduce bureaucracy, have a one-stop shop for investors. Because only private economy–be it from within or from without–they can bring the country ahead, offering job opportunities for the young population of this country. These are framework conditions the government has to create in order to stop the brain drain.

WH: You talked about prosperity. When I was a reporter for The New York Times, and in Iraq briefly in 2003, one of the big stories then–and it remained a big story in the years afterwards–was the need for the government to come up with a distribution of the oil wealth program. They still have not, have they?

MK: No, they have not. I was German ambassador in 2006-2007, and when I said goodbye to the then deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, who was very active in promoting revenue-sharing in the oil and gas laws, he said, “Oh Martin, now we are close. Next week, it will go through Parliament.” I am back in the mission, five years later, now as the United Nations head, the same law is on the table; the same oil and gas law, the same revenue-sharing laws on the table–nothing moved in the last five years.

Now, we put a lot of energy into the awareness that the revenue of this country has to be shared in a fair way. Revenue sharing of the country, which is a federal state, has to be cleared. Iraq is an incredibly rich country with huge resources, mainly untapped oil fields in the disputed internal boundaries. It’s already, today, the third largest oil-exporting country after Saudi Arabia and Russia. And I think it’s very important to give investors the security that their international oil contracts are honored, and also to give the provinces the security of what part of the wealth they get. I think that it’s on a good way.

Now we have elections coming up, and during electoral times it’s always a little bit difficult–as everywhere in the world–to promote things. But anyhow, I think the passing of the revenue-sharing law is in a good way. And this is the entry-point to bring peace to the country, because money and power are closely interrelated. If you solve the money problem, you can more easily solve the political problems of the country.

WH: This matter of dividing and sharing brings me to my next question. We in the West have learned, particularly after the invasion of Iraq, of the split between the Shi’a and the Sunnis. I think equally important in your mind is the rift between the Kurds and the Arabs. Can you talk about that?

MK: Well, Article 1 of the constitution says that “Iraq is one single, federal state.” It is a federal state with the autonomy of the Kurdish region. This does not mean that the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] and Kurdistan is an independent entity within. People have to talk. And we have an increasing Kurdish-Arab rift at the time. One should not forget that Iraq is now in the first year of its true independence, after the withdrawal of American troops at the end of last year. From the first of January of this year, a new era for Iraq started. There is no buffer in the disputed internal boundaries. There is a self-reliance on security. Also, this cannot be solved overnight.

One thing that worries me is the political stalemate and the inability of political leaders to talk to each other and to agree on a power-sharing formula within the state for now–almost one year, and there is no progress. Unfortunately, UNAMI is not able to be strong enough to convince the political stakeholders to sit together, to bring the national agenda ahead. Now, if you have a stalemate, this is a way back to the past; it is not a way forward to the future.

WH: You were there as Germany’s ambassador from 2006-2007. I know, in going back now, five years later, you have found one phenomenon that’s changed and that is the incidence of sand and dust storms. Can you tell us about that? What are the consequences of that for the country?

MK: One of our joint projects with the agency-sponsored programs is the combat of sand and dust storms. This is something which is underrated in the political discussion, it is a little bit difficult to raise it to political awareness.

Indeed, when I left in 2007, we had sand and dust storms from, let’s say, November to March, something like the khamsin in Egypt or the winds which are only occurring at certain times. Today, five years later, we have a doubled increase of sand and dust storms, plus an appearance of a dust haze all over the populated areas which originates in Iraq itself. This is due to, number one, the climate change, but also due to environmental degradation, the absence of agriculture that people leave. These areas are not being taken care of as they should.

The sand and dust storms, the minister of environment of Iraq says, will increase in the next five years–will double in the next five years–causing health hazards, but also economic problems. The airports are closed, part of the roads have to be closed. And this does not affect Iraq only. The Iranians complain a lot about sand and dust storms generated in Iraq and reaching into Tehran. The Kuwaitis had to close their airports–there were 30 days when the air traffic in Kuwait was affected by sand and dust storms, originating in Iraq. That’s why it’s very important, I think, to address these long-term problems.

The practical problem now is, if you say we have to combat–together with the international community–the sand and dust storms, and they say, “This takes time, this is long-term.” But, a Chinese philosopher said, “The longest trip starts with the first step.” And if we do not start today, we cannot–because this is a generation project–reverse the trend of reducing the sand and dust storms in ten years from now.

The practical idea is, together with UNEP [United Nations Environmental Programme] in Nairobi, to create with real money, huge green belts from Anbar province at the border of Jordan, down to Karbala and down to the Kuwaiti border–agriculture, palm trees–but sustainably; no investor should exploit the natural resources and the water of the area. That’s why the participation of the UN is very important: If you leave it to the investors alone, in 20 years the water will be consumed, and we are back to square one. That’s why we try to bring together a regional group–and I am just coming from Kuwait, from a sand-storm conference arranged by UNEP and the Kuwaiti ministry of environment, in order to tackle this problem. I think it’s very important for the future generation, and one has to tackle it now.

WH: Martin, finally, in the context of the very difficult years that Iraq has gone through, its contemporary history–how is Iraq doing?

MK: First of all, I feel very comfortable in Iraq because I see that from five years back, when I was living there last, the atmosphere is less tense. People are on the streets, they are going shopping, they are going to their educational institutions, the fear of kidnapping practically disappeared. Terrorist events–as I have just spoken about–still exist, but the atmosphere is much more relaxed in the daily life. This automatically reflects, of course, on the cooperation with the interlocutors–with the many NGOs we are cooperating with–but also our relations to the government. So Iraq developed a lot.

But, as I said, every security incident is one security incident too many. We are trying, together with our Iraqi interlocutors, not only to tackle the political problems, but also the developmental problems the country has. Iraq has still 1.2 million internally displaced refugees, so UNHCR and other organizations have a crucial role–now with Syria, of course, and the spillover of refugee streams coming to Iraq–but also we should not forget the many internally displaced which have to be taken care of. These are hundreds of thousands.

The question of minorities, of course, is another political problem which we take very seriously, because of our values that we are advocating the rights of the weak and of the vulnerable. So there is a lot to do. But the spirit is constructive. Less constructive are the political stalemates. I would wish that the people who are politically responsible–from all political blocks–come together and they work for the benefit of their people, in order to create the framework conditions so that their children can stay in their country.

WH: Martin Kobler, thanks so much for visiting with us today in the Global Observatory.

MK: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to be here, Warren.

Read about Martin Kobler’s talk at IPI, Nov. 28, 2012 >>

Photo credit: Don Pollard