‘Our top crisis is violent extremism in its various forms’

| March 22, 2016 | 0 Comments
(Photo: Jana Chytilova)

(Photo: Jana Chytilova)

Michael Grant is one of Canada’s two ambassadors to the United Nations. He graduated from Concordia University in 1992 and joined the foreign service in 1994. He’s held several positions in Ottawa and was director of the Middle East division before becoming ambassador to Libya in 2012, while his wife, Heidi Kutz, was serving as ambassador to Portugal. He has also had postings in Serbia, Turkey, Argentina and Mexico. He sat down with Diplomat’s editor, Jennifer Campbell, when he was in Ottawa this winter.

Diplomat magazine: You’re posted in New York as ambassador to the UN and deputy permanent representative. How is that?
Michael Grant: We love it. My wife is a head of mission, too, so she’s deputy consul general at the consulate in New York. So it works well — it’s perfect for us.

DM: There would be very few places that you could be posted together.
MG: At our level, yeah. Brussels is probably the only other one.

DM: Geneva?
MG: Yeah, but neither of us is a real trade expert and the other head of mission there is the World Trade Organization, so that wouldn’t work. We love New York, and our kids love it. We have two boys, nine and 11, and New York is kind of like Disney World.

DM: Where were your children when you were posted to Libya?
MG: They were with my wife. She was ambassador to Portugal. Libya was an unaccompanied post. The security situation was pretty bad. This was right after the revolution [2012.] It was very interesting, though. We can debate Libya for a long time and I do often. On one level, you’re seeing this kind of society emerge, but there was no real government structure. [Still,] seeing civil society emerge from nothing was inspiring. Seeing these people who were willing to put their lives on hold to change their country really was inspiring. I was there for almost two years. There was about a year where it was almost optimistic. Everyone was still getting along. But there were a lot of problems. They just had no experience in how to run a government, how to be a parliamentarian. They were kind of clashing over job descriptions and when nothing was done, it allowed that vacuum to grow.

“You could say our top crisis is violent extremism in its various forms.” (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

“You could say our top crisis is violent extremism in its various forms.” (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

DM: What are your thoughts about Libya’s lot now?
MG: We’re starting to see a little hope. I think the UN is doing a pretty good job of trying to bring the parties together. It’s not easy, but we’re starting to see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. This is important. Because of the fact that ISIS is now camped there, the Libyan people need to move forward and I think there is a critical mass of people who want to. Be patient and it’ll come. It deserves attention, but that’s tough these days when you have so many crises all over the world.

DM: In your opinion, from your perspective at the UN, what’s the biggest cause for concern at the moment ?
MG: Clearly Syria. Just the devastation that’s occurred because of what the Assad regime has done and now what ISIS has been allowed to do. But it’s really difficult to say what is the top crisis because there are a number. You could say that our top crisis is violent extremism in its various forms, whether it’s ISIS or Boko Haram or al-Qaeda or others. But if you’re looking for a geographic location, I’d have to say Syria.

Klaus Schwab, director of the World Economic Forum, worries the current refugee crisis may double or even triple in size.  (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

Klaus Schwab, director of the World Economic Forum, worries the current refugee crisis may double or even triple in size. (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

DM: What are the new government’s plans for our peacekeeping operations?
MG: It’s going to take a while. It’s kind of an exciting time, in a way, for the UN. Last year, it went through some very significant reviews. We have a high-level panel on peace operations [HIPO] — and that change of name is significant because it recognizes it’s not just peacekeeping. It’s not just military on the ground. It’s very much a comprehensive approach. If you look at the outcome of that report as well as the outcome of the report on the peace-building architecture, and, in many ways the review of Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, there are some real common threads there. One is the importance of politics. These conflict situations will only get resolved through the political process and it’s imperative to put the UN’s emphasis back on that. As well, peacekeeping can’t just operate in a vacuum. It needs to be connected to, first and foremost, the rest of the UN system, but also all international actors and civil society.
These reviews, some of them were mandated, but the HIPO was the secretary general’s position. It caught everyone off guard, to be honest.
I chair the special committee on peacekeeping. It’s something Canada has done for quite a while and in that body, we also were a little bit surprised and saying ‘why now? [Ban Ki-moon] is close to the end of his mandate. Last year, the UN was occupied with the sustainable development goals (SDG) negotiations, so this was surprising. But it didn’t take long for everyone, inside the UN and member states, to realize it’s truly necessary because peacekeeping has changed dramatically. There is a feeling that the UN needs to up its game and we are starting to see some of those old traditional peacekeepers come back. We’ve seen the Dutch and the Swedes and the Danes and the Brits, the Germans as well, get more involved. Collectively, now’s the time to do this.

DM: Is there a move toward quality peacekeeping, instead of quantity, which lately has meant less-well-trained troops?
MG: That’s the biggest visible difference between what peacekeeping was in the past and what it’s becoming. There will always be a need for large numbers of peacekeepers, but if you’re really going to improve the quality, you need to ensure proper training, discipline, quality control and use of capabilities and technology that’s emerged over the last 10 years. There aren’t that many countries that can offer that entire package. The fact that the UN recognizes the need for reform is a good sign and we’ve had significant political leadership, including from the U.S., with President Barack Obama’s summit last September, where we had an incredible amount of pledges in terms of troops and capabilities. There’s been a real political momentum behind peace operations. It’s an exciting time for the UN. There’s still a lot to be done, but the UN recognizes its shortfalls and is now working very hard on how it generates its forces, how it plans. Those are opportunities for countries with the right kind of experience to help the UN.

DM: For Canada, what are your marching orders from the new government?
MG: You, like I, have seen the mandate letters and they’re pretty clear that Canada is a country that believes in multilateralism, that the UN is the core institution and it needs to be supported and a key element of that is the UN’s role when it comes to peace operations and peacekeeping. What we’re doing now is looking at insuring that we have a full understanding of what it is the UN needs, seeing where our capabilities lie and then finding a way to match them. I think this will be a proper process. It’ll take a little bit of time.
We’d be doing a disservice if we take the government direction we have and say ‘OK, let’s deploy to X, Y and Z.’ I think if we truly believe in helping the UN improve the system, we’re going to take a significant amount of time to discuss in depth with them and allies to see exactly what we can offer. And I think in some ways, maybe recalibrating some of the things we’ve done. We’ve maintained a presence in peacekeeping, but our biggest role right now is police. They’ve done an incredible job in Haiti and Canada is seen very much to this day as a leader — if not the leader — when it comes to police peacekeeping. After Afghanistan, it’s not surprising that our numbers dropped. But with that comes the need to re-teach your muscles. The reflexes aren’t quite there. We could easily point to certain areas where we could be active, but I think the proper thing to do is give it a big think.

DM: What was it like to be at the UN when Justin Trudeau was elected?
MG: The reaction was quite amazing, to be honest. As a public servant — and I’ve served under multiple governments — it’s kind of an interesting role when you have colleagues come up to you and congratulate you. You sort of half say thank you. The prime minister has certainly had an instantaneous international profile and certainly some of the comments he made early on — such as the one in response to what he said about his cabinet — continue to resonate. I was on a panel [in January] in preparation for the Commission on the Status of Women and the moderator mentioned it as he was introducing me. And the people in attendance broke out in applause when he said ‘It’s 2015.’ I think this is an area where Canada can play a real leadership role. I mentioned earlier the review of Resolution 1325, which is an important element. [The resolution reaffirms the role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.] The other is what’s now called Agenda 2030, the SDGs, where the role of women and gender equity was a cross-cutting theme. It’s great that they’ve been recognized, but it’s still going take a lot of work to ensure full implementation. And I think Canada can really be at the forefront of that. Certainly the prime minister has opened up the space for us to play that leadership role. So yeah, it was quite something to get that reaction. And it’s great.

DM: How, as a Canadian diplomat, did you react to the letter Trudeau sent saying ‘You guys are the experts?’
MG: Any time your boss sends you a letter that says he has confidence in you, it’s kind of a nice thing. I’ve worked for many governments, many ministers and think overall, the Canadian system, regardless of who’s in office, is one of the best in the world in terms of the relationship between the political level and the public servants. We have a good, open, honest relationship. I think also, I and other ambassadors and public servants felt it was nice to be recognized for the work we do and the choice we’ve made. As an ambassador representing Canada abroad, it was a real boost. The fact that we’re doing this interview is an important sign. It’s a different approach. It demonstrates confidence and trust.

DM: So there are two Canadian ambassadors to the UN based in New York?
MG: Yes. We have the permanent representative who has just been named — Marc-André Blanchard — and I’m the deputy representative. In New York, it’s fairly common to have at least two. The Americans have five, the Russians have three.

DM: How do you divide up your responsibilities?
MG: Different missions do it differently. Under previous ambassador [Guillermo] Rishchynski, we kept a fairly flat organization. We had our areas. The main reason you have two is just the volume of work and also you always need someone there at that rank.
We had our areas of focus. I chair peacekeeping, I chair a group on Haiti. When [Rishchynski] was there, he took the lead on future configuration of the peacebuilding commission on Sierra Leone as well as Afghanistan and a number of others.
When Marc-André arrives, that will be something we’ll look at and see his style and approach.

DM: What’s the difference between sending a political appointee to the UN versus sending a career diplomat?
MG: I think, first and foremost, people are picked for a job like that because they have the skill set to do it. If you take a career diplomat, who has spent his career on diplomatic posts, there is a language of diplomacy and it’s learnable. Your skill set may be heavier on the UN and its issues, or it may be heavier on political initiatives. I think over time, after the end of a term, for example, I would expect it’s all been evened out. Going into an assignment, it might be stronger in one area than another and in New York, you’ll see a mix of political appointees and career diplomats.
DM: There are peace talks happening in Geneva on Syria as we speak. Are you hopeful for a solution?
MG: I think we need to support the UN’s efforts to bring the parties together and I think we’re seeing strong diplomatic efforts by Americans and others and these need to be explored. The only way we’re going to get out of this crisis is through negotiation.

DM: The secretary-general got in a bit of hot water this week after criticizing Israel for building settlements in Palestinian territories. What is Canada’s current position on the Israel-Palestine issue?
MG: Canada believes in a two-state solution. It’s only going to be reached through negotiation.

DM: Can you share your thoughts on Canada reopening its embassy in Iran?
MG: I think we’re getting a bit off the topic of the UN?

DM: Has the world forgotten about Haiti? Is it still on the UN’s radar?
MG: It’s gotten higher in the last few weeks, but it’s always been high. The UN has a very active mission in Haiti, one that Canada participates in. We have 80 or 90 police on the ground there. Until recently, we had the top [officer]. He just finished his tour. Haiti needs to continue to move in the direction it’s been moving and that’s political process. There have been some speed bumps recently, but the role of the UN community is to get it through this process. We’re hopeful we’ll see a final round of elections and have a new president and parliament in place.

DM: Klaus Schwab at Davos talked about the refugee crisis and how he worries that Africans will start moving north, too, and the crisis will double and triple in size. Is the UN doing a good job?
MG: I think the UN is doing as good a job as it can in delaying the flows. The UN is a strong partner with Canada in helping us bring 25,000 refugees. Canada stepped up when the rest of the world seemed to be closing doors — that was appreciated. But you know, whether it’s the Middle East or whether it’s Africa, the way to deal with this is really finding solutions at home — proper development, proper governance. And I think one way that the UN is addressing that is through Agenda 2030 with the sustainable development goals. It’s a very ambitious agenda, but it’s achievable. At its core is ending world poverty, but it’s wide-ranging and includes proper governance. I think this is the way to growth. It’s encouraging.

DM: The Liberal government has committed $2.65 billion to climate change. What did your UN colleagues think of that?
MG: Canada’s role in Paris resonated in a significant way. It’s a great example of the kind of role Canada can play as a leader on substance and a country that has an ability to convene, facilitate and bring others along, because we can reach into different corners of the world and I think our role in helping reach that agreement has been a triumph, and recognized. It was a great signal of what a country like Canada can do.

DM: You weren’t there in 2010 when we lost our Security Council seat. Is that discussed much?
MG: Look, we believe in the UN and the Security Council is one of the core institutions. Canada has served on it in the past and we will serve on it in future and we look forward to that time.

DM: I would think it would change your job significantly.
MG: Yes. We work very closely with Australia and New Zealand all the time and New Zealand is currently on the council and Australia just came off. I saw how the intensity of work really changes.

DM: What’s the latest thing on which you’ve collaborated with New Zealand and Australia?
MG: We consult and collaborate on just about everything. We talk to everyone — whether someone you want to partner with or to understand their views. That kind of engagement is essential. Australia, New Zealand and Canada do have similar perspectives and we’re stronger together in a lot of UN bodies than we are separately. There was a statement [earlier this year], which the Australian ambassador delivered on behalf of Canada and New Zealand. I mentioned the peacekeeping committee that I chair — within that body, we co-ordinate our work so when we make submissions about what we think should be in the report, we do it as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The UN is about negotiation and if the three of us can’t find common ground, there wouldn’t be much hope for others. We try to lead by example in showing that you can partner for a common purpose.
DM: What are the UN’s best projects in Africa? Would you name three things that give you hope for that continent?
MG: In terms of the UN’s work in Africa, three distinct roles stand out. The UN’s peacekeeping efforts in Africa are probably its most visible presence on the continent and one of the most important roles the UN has to play. With nine peacekeeping missions operating in some of the world’s most challenging environments, the UN continues to be heavily engaged in maintaining peace and security in the region.
UN efforts in support of national government development priorities remain crucial to achieving the 2030 Agenda. UN work in Africa can help restore livelihoods, build economic opportunity and support long-term sustainable development.
Three things that offer hope for the continent: [First,] the prospects for sustainable development in Africa. The 2030 Agenda reflects a global consensus that sustainable development requires efforts to address social, economic and environmental issues, as well as to ensure peace, sound governance and respect for human rights and the rule of law. The universal nature of the 2030 Agenda sustainable development goals is important as it means the agenda will be pursued in a new spirit of partnership between countries and with communities and business. Implementation of the sustainable development goals will be challenging, and we are realistic about these challenges, but support for the goals shown by many countries in Africa and elsewhere is encouraging.
[Second,] the economic potential of Africa: The potential for economic growth is significant and should not be underestimated. Countries such as Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Rwanda are all projected to experience rapid growth in the coming years.
[Finally,] there are prospects of peace and democratic transition continent-wide: While there are many challenging situations that tend to dominate the agenda of the Security Council as well as mainstream media, there is an increasingly democratic tradition continent-wide that should be acknowledged. Countries [such as] Sierra Leone, which suffered a brutal civil war fewer than two decades ago, are managing this transition to democracy very effectively. Canada has been proud to support this transition as chair of the Sierra Leone peacebuilding configuration. There are elections in Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Benin and Niger that will all be important to watch this year.

DM: Where does Responsibility to Protect (R2P) stand in regards to Syria and two other top-of-the-mind current crises? Does R2P deserve the often-heard criticism that it’s just rhetoric?
MG: We continue to support R2P and remain committed to working to prevent and halt genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Canada is working with the United Nations, as well as like-minded countries and civil society to strengthen the commitment to prevent mass atrocities, enhance early-warning mechanisms and respond effectively to impending crises.
There is great potential in the R2P Pillar II agenda, particularly in the realm of prevention. Prevention efforts — often implemented in partnership with states — are an important component of the concept and demonstrate its enduring relevance.

DM: In January, Syrians heard an address from Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, vowing that the UN will never abandon them. Do they have a right to wonder about the truth of that and, if yes, in what way?
MG: The situation in Syria remains front and centre for Canada as well as the broader international community. We stand ready to support the Syrian people in their efforts to secure a future that is peaceful, just, democratic and respectful of the rights of all of its citizens. You will note that Canada has made a significant announcement recently, contributing more than $1.6 billion over the next three years towards security, stabilization, humanitarian and development assistance, as well as enhanced diplomatic engagement, in response to the Syrian and Iraqi crises and their impact on the region.
More broadly, in the last six months we have seen a number of important steps by the UN to address the conflict in Syria. In particular, I would highlight the joint investigative mechanism established by the Security Council to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria and assign blame. This is the first investigation of its kind in the midst of a conflict. [Also,] the recent conference in London on the humanitarian situation in Syria pledged an unprecedented level of support for the Syrian people — almost US $11 billion in assistance. [Finally,] the International Syria Support Group and the UN Security Council were instrumental in reviving a political process for discussions on a roadmap towards resolution of the conflict. Much of this is thanks to the leadership and tireless efforts of UN Special Envoy de Mistura and the secretary general.
A Syrian-led political transition is the only path to a lasting solution that will relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. We hope that the recent outcome of the International Syria Support Group meeting in Munich, with commitments to provide humanitarian assistance and implement a nationwide ceasefire in Syria, will provide an opportunity for peace talks to continue.
While we remain realistic about the challenges to come, all three of these initiatives demonstrate the level of resolve and focus of the UN and its member states in supporting the people of Syria and the re-establishment of peace and stability.

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