Samir Sanbar to Asharq Al-Awsat: Weakened UN Role Affected Arab Region
Samir Sanbar spent 44 years working at the United Nations. He lived through turbulent times, witnessing firsthand how major influential nations were reluctant about resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. He detailed to Asharq Al-Awsat how in 1980, he accompanied then-UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim to Tehran in an attempt to free the American hostages. He was friends with Kofi Annan. He remained by Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s side until his final day in office even after he was abandoned by many in wake of his official report about the Israeli attack of the UN peacekeeping force in Qana in southern Lebanon in 1996.
In the second and final part of his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Sanbar recounts how Waldheim tackled Middle East and Iranian affairs and how Boutros-Ghali defied adversity to release his damning report.
- Urgent developments in the Middle East unfolded during Waldheim’s tenure as UN Secretary-General.
Waldheim tried to play an effective role in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict based on the international law and UN resolution 242. His efforts did not lead to tangible results on the ground because major powers did not want to reach a balanced solution.
He also went to Iran days after its revolution, but could only remain for a few days, especially after he was mobbed when he attempted to lay a wreath on the “graves of martyrs”. It was clear that an internal dispute over power was unraveling at the time. I remained in Iran and tried to carry out contacts in cooperation with the ambassadors of Canada and Algeria to reach an appropriate solution.
- You traveled to Tehran at the height of the revolution. What are your memories of that experience?
The transition of power had not been completed yet. I tried to reach those holding the reins and discovered that they were being held by many different parties, who all operated under Khomeini. I learned that a meeting with him would entail sitting on the ground and refraining from broaching any political issue or even initiating the conversation.
I had heard that the rivalry at the time was fierce between Iranians who had fled abroad and those leading the revolt on the inside. The rivalry pitted the old guard against a new wave of movements and leftists that had emerged with those who held the hostages at the American embassy. I tried to hold media seminars with the limited number of foreign reporters. I learned much from the Algerian and Canadian envoys and we remained in contact even after the hostages were released.
- What role did you play in releasing the hostages?
I had accompanied Waldheim to Tehran during the meditation to release them. We arrived on January 1, 1980. We were attending a sermon when Waldheim whispered to me that he felt a gunman discreetly hold a machinegun to his back. He departed two days later and I remained to continue on trying to release the hostages.
- What role did you play as Boutros-Ghali attempted to oversee Eritrea’s first free independent elections?
He became secretary-general at the time when it appeared that a peaceful solution to the armed Eritrean uprising against Ethiopia was on the horizon. The UN Security Council had taken the decision to hold a referendum to assess the Eritrean people’s demands for regime change. A proposal was made to dispatch the “blue helmets” peacekeeping force to oversee the implementation of the referendum. I suggested that “white shirts” be dispatched instead so that the Eritreans would get a sense of freedom of expression.
It was a coincidence that the contact group was made up of women and on International Women’s Day, they took to the streets to celebrate with the Eritreans. We were dressed in white shirts with “free and fair referendum for Eritrea” written on them in blue. We gain a popular base in one day.
I met all political parties, including current president Isaias Afwerki. I toured the villages and regions near the Sudan border. I met with the Coptic patriarch and head of Dar al-Fatwa. We completed the mission and the official result was announced at the UN. I proposed to the president that he submit a request to join the UN to confirm the independence. I learned that Monaco was considering submitting a similar request. I proposed that they do it during the same session to show some international balance between a developing nation and a European one.
- Tell us about your role in pressing issues you encountered during Boutros-Ghali’s term in office.
When Israel attacked the Fijian contingent in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) deployed in the southern Lebanese town of Qana, a political crisis erupted over the official report about the incident. Will it be released or not? Lebanon demanded its release, but Israel wanted it kept under wraps. The secretary-general was in Germany when an internal meeting was held. Madeline Albright, the US representative, demanded that it should not be released. Kofi Annan, who was then Under Secretary-General of the Department for Peacekeeping Operations, leaned towards her position.
I explained to him that the BBC had revealed key details of the attack and that it was hard to cover up the issue. Boutros-Ghali then returned to New York and then Lebanese President Elias Hrawi arrived to present his country’s case before the General Assembly. He met with Boutros-Ghali who promptly took the decision to release the report. Prime Minister Shimon Peres suggested that it be postponed for a few days to give time for army commander Ehud Barak to read the report. Albright again intervened, but the decision to release it was final.
She then lobbied against extending Boutros-Ghali’s term. She singled me out in reproaching me for defending him in the media, especially in the New York Times, Washington Post and major television stations. She intensified her campaign against me when Boutros-Ghali ran for a second term. My colleague and friend for long years, Annan, was also running, I explained to him that my loyalty lies with Boutros-Ghali until the end of his term. I remained by his side even after he was abandoned by many.
- You retired from the UN when Annan was in office and at the time the United States decided to invade Iraq in spite of the UN’s opposition. What took place behind the scenes during this crisis? What were your last days at the organization like?
I felt that I was more at ease with field work than administrative work. I am humbled when I play a hand in providing food for children, bolstering dignified life in developing communities and contributing to a people’s independence.
Annan proposed that we maintain the same cooperation that we had established throughout the decades. Despite going along with others and constant differences, I could tell how he was feeling just by observing the slight changes in his expression. Days after the US invaded Iraq without UN backing, I met with him after he had spoken to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He was visibly irritated and I told him that they entered Iraq without official UN authorization, but they will turn to us when they wanted to leave.
After a long day of listening to ambassador speeches and employee demands, I wanted to pass by a grocer on my way home. I was surprised to find it shut. I realized it was 10:30 pm. I asked myself how long will I continue on living like this? Will I at least attempt to enjoy life? Soon after, I retired. I had arrived to the UN from Rome for a six-month contract, but ended up staying for 44 years.
- What advice to you give to young journalists?
I encourage them to learn about media diplomacy. I suggest that they set their goals based on their talents and proper planning and execution. Most importantly, they should listen before they speak and think before they write. They should not rely on others for help, but advance through their talent and innovation and free independent thinking. Credibility is key as is approaching others with humility and without presumptions. Experience has shown me that communicating with others enriches one’s cultural knowledge and that respecting human dignity starts with one’s self. Above all, they must not abandon their roots no matter how great the temptations.
- What was you relationship like with the journalists and reporters at the UN?
Journalism and political diplomacy are separated by paperwork and connected by mutual interests. My background in journalism helped me understand the needs of the journalists deployed to different positions and missions. This took place over three phases.
The first took place when I started my career as a journalist in Beirut. I was a university student who aspired for a career in journalism. I used to observe foreign journalists throughout the city and I was overjoyed when I interviewed then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.
The second took place when I began working for the UN mission in southern Lebanon and established contacts with Arab League states. When foreign journalists were moved to Beirut’s Commodore Hotel during the civil war, I began to frequent its lobby and receive them at my nearby office. Many of them catapulted to fame soon after, such as Thomas Friedman, the weekly commentator for the New York Times. He had his start at the Associated Press office at the Annahar building on Beirut’s renowned Hamra Street. Robert Fisk worked for London’s The Times and Loren Jenkins would win the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the developments in Beirut in 1982.
The third phase took place at the UN headquarters in New York. My role was to present heads of states and governments during press conferences, which allowed me to form amicable ties with reporters. Some presidents were wary of meeting the press, while some reporters questioned the futility of holding meaningful dialogue with several officials. The experience allowed me to strike a practical balance between official courtesy and professional results. I made work friends through my daily dealings with reporters. After three decades of international work, I realized that I am a journalist at heart.
- How do you assess the UN today as an organization?
It used to be the main hub for negotiations between member states, but its role has weakened over the past two decades. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize for its ceasefire efforts throughout the world, journalism today reports more about sexual abuse scandals of several UN observers in Central Africa, Gabon and Haiti. The UN needs major countries to survive and small ones to succeed.
Let us recall how Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash as he was negotiating a ceasefire in Congo. His successor U Thant succeeded in preventing a war over Czechoslovakia and third world war over Cuba. He proposed foundations to resolve the problems of the Middle East based on international law. Let us recall how Javier Perez de Cuellar reached a cessation of hostilities in El Salvador and Guatemala and a ceasefire between Iraq and Iran. And we must not forget the pivotal role played by Boutros-Ghali in averting conflict between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia.
The UN usually reflects the state of the world, which has changed in the 21st century that has seen the birth of new nations and division of others. Some have changed their names and others have changed their concepts of leaderships. It is a new, angry and vague world, whose characteristics have not fully taken shape yet. It requires a realistic change for the comprehensive global framework.
As for the Arab world, the benefits it reaped from the UN decreased as the organization lost its influence over regional affairs. Arab representation needs a realistic re-assessment. Not a single influential position in the General Secretariat is occupied by an Arab as opposed to the past when such positions were occupied by three Arabs, including a woman.