Q&A: Izumi Nakamitzu, United Nations Assistant Secretary-Generaland Sharon Xiang | Oct 17, 2016
On Friday, Oct. 14, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Izumi Nakamitsu sat down with the Daily Princetonian before delivering a talk. Nakamitsu, who also acts as Director of the Crisis Response Unit and serves on the United Nations Development Program, was invited by Whig-Clio to discuss her current role in the United Nations and her thoughts on current conflicts around the world.
The Daily Princetonian: Can you tell us about your current role at the United Nations?
Izumi Nakamitsu: So, I’m currently one of the Assistant Secretary Generals. My portfolio is for Crisis Response in U.N. Development Program — it’s called UNDP. It so happen[s] that in conflict and crisis, the landscape has changed, the nature of conflict has changed. The previous approach of when there is conflict, you send humanitarian assistance and peacemakers and facilitators and negotiators. Once there is agreement, we send peacekeeping forces to stabilize the situation and only after there is a degree of stability, development actors go. That kind of sequential approach used to be the one that we used, but that doesn't work anymore and the reason is, as you know, [the] Syrian conflict is now in the sixth year. Conflicts don't end that easily anymore. So, UNDP realized that development organization also has to go in — even during a conflict — and then contribute from development approaches so that we don’t have to wait years and years to start doing basic livelihood activities, [such as] developmental support. So, my unit is responsible for responding to crisis using development approaches.
I think it was 1989, I started in UNHCR so I started in humanitarian organizations, but as you know, soon after I joined, there was the first Gulf War and then Kurdish refugee crisis and then followed by Yugoslavia crisis, the Bosnian war. So, I always looked at conflict and crisis from different perspectives. I first entered the U.N. into the humanitarian organization and looked at how to actually deal with the symptoms of conflict and then I moved on to do other things. I was part of [former Secretary-General] Kofi Annan's U.N. reform team in New York and then I met my now-husband and he was a Swedish diplomat. I took some time off and worked on democracy-building assistance. There is an international organization based in Stockholm so I did democracy support and then I went back to the United Nations. I was part of a department for peacekeeping operations. I was [first] a policy director and then I worked as a director for Asia and the Middle East, so I [ran] operations in Syria [and] Lebanon. There was also Afghanistan as well so that time I was linking out really peace and security role directly from peacekeeping operations. Of course, in between I was part of Yugoslavia operation, so I have mixture of headquarters and the field experiences. I was also part of a task force to deal with Great Lakes crisis in Africa and Rwandan refugee crisis back in the ’90s. I did all sorts of different things so I am now in development organization, looking at how [the] development community can also contribute to new terminology that we started to use is “sustaining peace,” so that’s a really quick summary of what I have been doing.
DP: What exactly is your role as Assistant Secretary-General?
IN: ASG is just a ranking. There is SG, Deputy Secretary-General, and then Undersecretary General and underneath is me, ASG and below that is directors level. Up to the directors level it’s a career appointment and, after ASG, it becomes a political appointment. So, each organization has the senior level USG or ASG ranking officials. Basically, what we do is to provide leadership in the respective areas. Yesterday, I was in the General Assembly hall and watched Mr. [Antonió] Guterres being appointed by the General Assembly. So, [the] U.N. is again entering a new phase, I think. I mean, I was joking with my colleagues and ambassadors, “For once, in a long time, the Security Council was able to make a good decision with an appointment.” As you know, it’s completely divided now, everything in the Security Council tends to get really stuck and they're not able to agree on anything, Syria being the primary example of that. But on this appointment, they were able to make [a] good decision and they were able to make that decision very quickly. So I felt yesterday, sitting in the GA hall, the U.N. getting re-energized with the new leaders coming. So, a very, very happy moment.
DP: Why did you choose to go into the U.N.?
IN: Well, I guess a mixture of things. I always wanted to do something that will contribute to making the world a better place. My family has always been, for generations, always been in public service, but I wanted to do that public service not in Japan, but abroad. The U.N. is an interesting place. When I was studying at Georgetown, I had a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. — and she, of course, later became the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright — as one of my professors. So looking at this huge bureaucracy, there are of course really frustrating aspects of it, but at the same time, the U.N. is a place where you can use your head but really driven by your heart. Strong motivation to help the most vulnerable and use your capacity and ability to do that is a really great thing.
DP: In addition to the Syrian crisis at the moment, could you describe any other pressing issues that the Crisis Response Unit or the UNDP is currently facing?
IN: A lot of things. One of the things that actually have made us much more engaged in the past two years or so is actually natural disasters. There have been so many. My Crisis Response Unit does not just deal with Yemen and Syria, etc., but we also have to deal with the sudden onset of natural disasters. I guess partly because of climate change, this past year there’s a slew of onset disasters, El Niño-induced droughts and floods, that sort of huge natural disaster phenomenon at the global level. There have also been earthquakes in Nepal and Ecuador. At the moment, my deputy is in Haiti to look at what we can do immediately to help the government and people after the Hurricane Matthew. So, there have been lots and lots of natural disasters that we have had to also take care of. Essentially, what we do is to provide development support in that kind of context. I mean, it essentially boils down to two areas. One is to create emergency employment. If you think about it, if you have a chance, if you're in that kind of situation and you have a chance to be able to work and earn money so that you can actually live and support your family or you have to depend on food assistance, which one would you choose? In terms of dignity, it is much better to create emergency employment so that people can work and make their living. So we go in, one of the things that we really try to increase our efforts is to go in very quickly and create emergency employment projects on a large scale. That’s what we'll also be doing in Haiti. But, the second area is also quite important, and that is to help the basic service delivery functions of local governments. It could be water, it could be sanitation, it could be health clinics, all sorts of [things].... In many of those developing countries, it doesn't happen because the government capacity is very, very low so that’s where UNDP can come in and help the local authorities to restore very quickly so people can actually quickly receive basic social protection and basic services. So, those are the contributions of the developing community. This is not a peacekeeping work and this is not humanitarian organizations’ work so you can see why development organizations really have to become faster in terms of our contributions coming in.
DP: So, the Syrian crisis has been brought to light by various news stations. Do you have any idea of any current issues that aren't well known to the public that should be better known?
IN: One priority agenda for us and for the new Secretary-General — that’s large movements of refugees and migrants. You know massive movements of people, it’s very visible, about 65 million displaced people, out of that about 24 [million] are refugees, 40-plus million are internally displaced peoples. The plight of those IDPs are very often not really coming to visible picture. For example, in Syria, because the situation is so bad, you see all these refugees who actually come out of Syria into neighboring countries or those who reach Europe. But, the people who are in most difficult situations are actually still in Syria, not being able to cross the border and flee the situation. So, I think that the plight of IDPs is something that people should be much much more aware of. I would like media to be able to report much more on IDPs. basically those in the most vulnerable situations, the voiceless people: ... women, children, and those who are really at the bottom of the situation. I think those are the people that we need to really focus on and we need to do that also because we have these SDGs, sustainable development goals. The slogan of that framework is “leave no one behind” which means that those most vulnerable have to be pulled off.
DP: Peace is one of the most difficult objectives to achieve because of how conflicts are so multi-faceted. Could you speak to something that you want to achieve?
IN: Guterres, the new SG, has said that that is the most important. The number one most important obviously is Syria because it is unbelievable, what is going on. What has already happened in terms of conflict really needs to be put to an end which means that the political solutions will have to be found. But, I think there is something that we can actually do much more realistically and that is to work much harder on the prevention. Because today’s conflicts are so hard to resolve, it's much better to actually not let them happen. The word prevention has been a very popular word in the U.N.... going back to the early ’90s. But so far, most of the efforts have actually been and most of the studies have actually been on political prevention or diplomatic prevention efforts. Early engagements and facilitation dialogues between opposing parties and that’s certainly very important and we have made good progress in that. Now the U.N. and the international community in general have much better capacity to engage early and try to facilitate, manage the conflict so that it won’t become violent conflict. What has not been really done so far is much more of a structural prevention efforts and here again it is actually development cooperation: How can we direct development money to the fragility that might actually become conflict? It's an investment and that area is much more difficult to actually prove. I don’t even know if there is methodology to prove that if you invest development cooperation in this area, there is a direct impact on prevention of conflict. So, that big area is a very important area and we are now working together with the World Bank to make some study of this.
DP: How exactly do we define what a crisis is? When is something a crisis and when is it just something we need to keep an eye on? How does the U.N. make that distinction?
IN: We have certain categories: there’s level one, level two, level three, and it’s all sort of a collective decision. We do have mechanisms to monitor the situation. [There are] different types of processes within the U.N. to do basic scanning and analysis of human rights situations in any given situation in any given country. Put that together with the political analysis of how things are moving in a given situation and when you start to see some clashes, then it becomes a very important case to very closely monitor. So, we do have internal mechanisms so I think these are very bureaucratic terms. I think you sort of know when you need to increase your deployments of people, for example increase the deployments of resources and we do actually trigger that at the U.N. level. Many times very quietly because the impact that we have will be reduced if it is actually a public engagement. Those are very sensitive situations, very often if we stay very low profile, it has a much better impact. For example, in Myanmar, the treatment of Rohingya, these are the Muslim minorities in a largely Buddhist country, Myanmar. Rohingya people don’t even have citizenship in Myanmar and they have been living in really, really appalling situations. Trying to engage this in a public way with the government would probably cause more reaction, so our engagement has been very sustained and very strong but we do it sort of behind the scenes and I think now, with the government change in Myanmar, I hope they will be on the way to find a more sustainable solution. It’s not necessarily that we declare prices that will have a positive impact. They are actually much more sophisticated approaches that we often have to take.
DP: How much field work do you still do?
IN: I do very often. I like doing that, it’s much more fun than to be at headquarters. I get energized in the field.