With its upcoming mission to break the stalemate over establishing a sovereign government in Iraq, the U.N. will be taking on a politically -- and physically -- sensitive assignment. A delegation of U.N. officials is expected to go to Baghdad in early February, five months after a car bomb killed 22 people outside its Baghdad headquarters (see BW Online, 2/2/04, "The U.N.'s Dicey Return to Iraq"). Indeed, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is still deeply worried about security lapses in the Iraq. "The security situation is a concern. We are reviewing it daily, and even for the team going in I have insisted on appropriate security measures before they go in," Annan told reporters while visiting Brussels on Jan. 28.
Beyond the considerable concerns for the safety of its personnel, the U.N. has to grapple with the fact that a transitional government is unlikely to work unless it's acceptable to Iraq's major political parties, ethnic factions, and religious groups.
To better understand the complex task facing the U.N., BusinessWeek Senior Writer Rose Brady spoke with Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator of the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP). Brown's agency won't be part of the initial U.N. delegation heading to Baghdad. That group is expected to seek a compromise between the American plan for indirect elections and the demand by Shiite cleric Ayatollah ali-Sistani for direct elections.
Should a solution be found, the UNDP is expected to head into Iraq to implement it. The agency is now helping 30 countries around the world conduct, monitor, or prepare for elections. And it has played a key role in Afghanistan's political transition. Brown, who calls himself an "electoral doctor," explained what's at stake for the Iraqis and the U.N. Edited excerpts of his conversation with Brady follow:
Q: How do you expect the U.N. to help the political process in Iraq?
A: The U.N. has to go in listening to everybody -- making some technical judgements, but trying to facilitate the discovery of common ground. The whole point is to find a formula that the Iraqis as a nation have confidence in. If there is some kind of agreement with the parties in Iraq that a particular type of electoral exercise -- direct or indirect -- is the best solution to the impasse they face, then the question will be how to support them. How do you register [voters]? How do you train election monitors? Have you created a free media that people have confidence in?
A whole set of issues comes up in elections in post-conflict situations. There are tensions between ethnic and religious groups, between majorities and minorities. These issues can be very explosive if you don't have a broad consensus about direction. So it's very necessary to frame a [political] consensus in advance of the election.
Q: What kind of advice can you give the Iraqis?
A: We'll try to distill the international experience to help them come to their own views -- to help them think more broadly [about] the issues of minority rights, human rights, and the relationship between religion and the state. They'll [need to] understand the international experience from which they were cut off [under Saddam Hussein].
Q: How quickly will all this get under way?
A: I imagine the first stage [of agreeing on a formula] will happen quickly. Once the Iraqis have agreed on what kind of election or what kind of expanded caucus they want, they'll have to follow that with [institution] building and a broad civic-education exercise around the issues posed by [their decision].
[Our involvement] has to be of a very neutral kind. The U.N. has to be seen as an honest information broker bringing international experience to them. Intrinsic to our neutrality is that we don't go in there with any kind of precooked views.
Q: Isn't setting up an election extremely difficult in a place like Iraq?
A: You've got a very volatile electorate without a stable party structure. There are risks. How do you keep the argument in bounds when the election precedes a constitution? How do you deal with some groups demanding autonomy or separation?
You have to hope that the argument isn't going to be inflammatory. Even if you don't have a constitution, you have to concentrate very hard on civic education in order to make people comfortable. You have to explain how other states have faced these issues and lived to tell the tale. You have to build up people's knowledge so the debate doesn't become too polarized.
Q: What does your involvement mean for the U.N. in the medium to long term?
A: I've been straining at the leash to get back for a while, and yet I fully recognize that until we have a solution to the security problem -- not a risk-free but a risk-managed way of returning -- it will be difficult.
It's vital that the U.N. be in Iraq, for Iraq, for the world. And it's vital for the UNDP that we be there. We look at our role as building governance institutions after conflict. That is one of our most distinctive trademark contributions to the world. We are like a player stuck on the bench and wanting to be in the game because this is something we feel deeply about.
Q: Beyond security risks, what other risks are involved?
A: The U.N. has got to make clear what it can do and can't do. It can make technical proposals for a solution. It can facilitate and suggest ways forward. But it still remains an outside party.
This is not East Timor or even Afghanistan. We're not in charge of anything. And we've got to keep reminding people of that so that our friends aren't disappointed, and our critics aren't given an opportunity to say, "There you are, we knew they couldn't solve this."