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“From the Frontlines of Humanity”: Former UN Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland on World Crises — Congo, Darfur, Iraq, Colombia and Palestine

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As former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and the former UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland spent years working with the world’s neediest and in conflict zones including Darfur, Colombia, Gaza, Lebanon, Uganda, the Congo and Iraq. Egeland joins us to talk about his time dealing with world crises, which he documents in a new memoir, A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The World Food Program has launched an extraordinary emergency appeal to raise $500 million by May 1 to close a funding gap caused by the soaring prices of food and fuel. The head of the UN agency, Josette Sheeran, warned donor nations that the World Food Program might soon be forced to cut food rations “for those who rely on the world to stand by them during times of abject need.” The World Food Program feeds at least seventy-three million people in nearly eighty nations.

Today, we’re joined by a former top UN official who has spent years working with the world’s neediest and in conflict zones including Darfur, Colombia, Gaza, Lebanon, Uganda, the Congo and Iraq. Jan Egeland is the former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and the former UN Emergency Relief Coordinator. He now serves as the Director-General of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. Egeland is one of the only international diplomats to have ever met with Manuel Marulanda, the leader of the Colombian rebel group FARC. Egeland played an instrumental role in the secret Israeli-PLO negotiations that led to the Oslo Accord.

AMY GOODMAN: During his time as UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, he oversaw the UN’s response to the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Israel-Lebanon war, the escalation of violence in Darfur and much more. And he’s just written a book outlining his work called A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity. Jan Egeland joins us in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

JAN EGELAND: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. What do you think is the single worst crisis right now in the world?

JAN EGELAND: Today, it’s — I would mention perhaps three. One is still eastern Congo, catastrophically neglected. It was the biggest loss of lives on our watch these last fifteen years: five million people died. Darfur has spread as a conflict and as a catastrophe to Chad and the Central African Republic. But certainly Iraq and Afghanistan is still unfolding as a hemorrhage of human life.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the catastrophe in the Congo — as you say, five million people since about 1998 — why has there been so little attention by the rest of the world to this crisis? And where is it right now in terms of the possibility for people in the Congo to be able to resume relatively normal lives?

JAN EGELAND: Well, it was one of the biggest mysteries when I had this job as the Global Emergency Relief Coordinator that we could not get enough attention to Africa, in general, and especially not to French-speaking, Portuguese-speaking Africa. The Congo was an enormous war, an enormous catastrophe, and it didn’t reach even the lowest levels of attention. We did a survey in my office in the UN, and in — I think in 2003, when it was at its worst, there were like six items on main US and network news. There were 1,900 of the Michael Jackson case. And it was the biggest war of our time.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and then come back. Jan Egeland is our guest. His book is called A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: As we talk with Jan Egeland, author of A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity — Jan Egeland is the former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and former UN Emergency Relief Chief — we’re talking first about the Congo, one of the most underreported conflicts on the globe. The International Rescue Committee estimates as many as 5.4 million people have died from war-related causes in the Congo since ’98. This, Jan Egeland, is what you had to say during your visit to the Congo in September of 2006.

    JAN EGELAND: This is the epicenter, really, of the humanitarian tragedy of the Congo, perhaps the worst in the world for this last decade. These women and children have been abused, have been raped, have lost everything. Some humanitarian assistance is now coming for the first time to this area to really help them. Our hope is, from the UN, to massively increase assistance and, more than anything, help them provide the peace in this area so they can return to their fertile land.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jan Egeland in 2006 in the Congo. You remember that moment?

JAN EGELAND: Yeah, I remember vividly. I was at the hospital called the Panzi Hospital, and around me were 1,200 physically and mentally destroyed women due to sexual violence. The sexual violence of the Congo, but also in other conflicts like in Darfur, in northern Uganda, is rampant, and it’s not reported on, really. Sexual abuse, mass rape of women, is not a side effect of war; it is the war. It is the way they destroy the social fabric of the people they want to fight.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to be done?

JAN EGELAND: Much more attention, but, number two, the leaders have to be held accountable. So I met with President Kabila of the Congo and said, “I know you cannot have a lot of courts set up in no time, but you could fire these generals, these governors, these political leaders, who let this happen on their watch.”

AMY GOODMAN: His response?

JAN EGELAND: His response was, “If I am elected, I will do that.” He was elected, and he didn’t do it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the responsibility and the role of the Western powers in this, of France and Belgium, the United States and others, who have long had interests, especially in the mineral wealth of the Congo?

JAN EGELAND: Well, the history is as black as it can get for the European colonialists in the Congo, in Central Africa, as it is for the West, generally, in Africa, I would say. Now, I would give credit, actually, to the European Union and the United Nations, supported by the US, for the operation in the Congo, because there was little interest in it, there was little reporting, and still the UN force was built up, and it is — it’s bad now in Congo, but it is infinitely better than when I came on my first visit in 2003 and they were fighting all across this tremendous continent, which is Congo. Now, it is more confined to the eastern strip of the Kivu provinces.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to Darfur. This clip is from your trip to the region in November of 2006.

    JAN EGELAND: And never would I have thought that the fear, the angst among the civilian population of Darfur would remain the same after three long years.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember where you were?

JAN EGELAND: I was in the outgoing press conference in Khartoum, leaving the country. I had been on my fourth visit to the Sudan. I had been blocked twice by the government, but I made it four times. And Darfur is one of these outrages, when you look back. It was a small conflict. It could have been contained. There was no interested really in investing in political pressure against the regime of Khartoum and in pushing through earlier a UN force that could have protected these civilians that were ethnically cleansed, first in the tens of thousands, then in the hundreds of thousands, and then in the millions.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you about another African country: Uganda. And you’ve also been involved there in humanitarian efforts. There’s been ongoing discussions between the Ugandan government and the rebel group there, the Lord’s Resistance Army, in terms of a possible peace accord, but the leader, Joseph Kony, has resisted that because he is being charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. You actually met him.


JUAN GONZALEZ: You’ve been one of the few Europeans who have actually met, sat down with him. Your sense of what needs to be done to achieve peace in Uganda?

JAN EGELAND: Well, it is indeed a part of my resume to have met more mass murderers and warlords than most people alive, actually, including him. I went there because I wanted to tell them two things. Number one, we are watching their every move, and they will be held accountable one day for the massacres. And they do feel watched now. They often feel that they — and we use that, US satellites are watching them and whatnot, and that they believe it. The International Criminal Court’s indictments also helps, I think. They don’t sleep well at night now — dictators, mass murderers — as they did before.

And we did, after that visit, see that the cessation of hostilities held, and there was now, just days ago, the permanent ceasefire ratified. There hasn’t been an attack since the summer of 2006. Hundreds of thousands are returning in this neglected conflict of northern Uganda. He hope — I hope he will be in jail one day, but of course now the main thing is to stop further fighting and massacres.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the fact that the US has not signed on to the International Criminal Court?

JAN EGELAND: Well, it is puzzling to me, because the US has, through its history, been a leader in fighting for human rights. I mean, my constitution, the Norwegian one, was in a way patterned after your Declaration of Independence. And it is now strange that the US would not ratify several of these international agreements, which is to further the whole fight for human rights. And, of course, it’s a good thing that Milosevic of Yugoslavia is now facing justice, Charles Taylor of Liberia is facing justice, the genocide responsible of Rwanda are facing justice. Why not join it? I mean, it seems to be some irrational fear in Washington that the US will someday be having people facing that. Well, if you don’t do genocide, which I don’t think you will do, you will not have anybody facing it.

AMY GOODMAN: Back on Darfur, I wanted to talk about the question of how politics comes into your work on humanitarian affairs and play excerpts of Columbia University professor, African studies scholar, Mahmood Mamdani, discussing the conflict in Darfur. He was speaking at the Left Forum earlier this month here in New York.

    MAHMOOD MAMDANI: From 2005, there was a dramatic fall in mortality rates in Darfur. UN sources on the ground in Darfur estimated that the number of deaths had gone down to 200 a month or less than 200 a month. They declared that Darfur was no longer an emergency. But the UN itself continued to speak of Darfur as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, and the US government continued to talk of Darfur as a continuing genocide.

    By the early 2007, we got huge campaigns in New York City, subway campaigns, bus campaigns, talking of 400,000 dead. Advocacy had turned into an advertisement. The campaign, Save Darfur campaign, was in fact led by a full-time advertising agency, which was employed full-time by Save Darfur. The entire $14 million budget of Save Darfur was spent outside Darfur. Nothing went to Darfur.

    Well, the astonishing thing is that even after the death rate went down, not that they stayed down all the time — there was fighting, they went up, they came down, etc. — but the kind of atrocious targeting of civilians that happened in 2003 and 2004 ceased to happen. Part of the credit for that has to go to Save Darfur movement. Part of the reason the Sudanese government decided to rethink its own strategy was that it wasn’t paying off. The publicity that was done globally had its effect. But the problem is that, having had its effect, once the violence — the levels of mortality went down, the propaganda continued as if nothing had changed, absolutely nothing had changed. So today I believe that Save Darfur movement is one of the major obstacles to peace in Sudan.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Columbia University Professor Mahmood Mamdani. Your response, Jan Egeland?

JAN EGELAND: Well, I do not agree with this professor. I’ve been to Darfur many times. It is true that we were very successful, with US food, US support, to embark on the biggest humanitarian operation any place at the moment: 12,000 humanitarian workers, some 1,000 trucks that’s involved in this. But listen, we keep people alive; we do not protect them. That’s the whole problem of our generation, in many ways. We have become effective in putting band-aids on wounds, but we do not heal the wound. This is the safe areas of Bosnia all over again. The people of Srebrenica was fed every day by Norwegian courageous civilian convoys, until they were massacred. In Darfur today, there are increasing amount — increasing violence. More villages are again being torched. Nothing has been solved as such.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Speaking of one of the unsolved battles that’s going on in the world, Colombia, you’ve also been there. You’ve been, again, one of the few people who’s actually met Manuel Marulanda, the legendary Colombian FARC leader known as “Sureshot.” And you actually, at one point, were able to convince the FARC leaders and government officials to come to Norway to engage in negotiations that then ended up falling apart. Why has it been so difficult to achieve any kind of a solution to that civil war, which has cost — more than thirty years — no, forty years, going on in that civil war — has cost so many lives in Colombia?

JAN EGELAND: Again, one of the paradoxes, really, we’re now in New York, where there is very good attention to Darfur, but very little to the Congo and very little in Colombia, which is much closer than Darfur. And in Colombia, there are as many displaced — two million — as there are in Darfur, through this civil war. It’s been going on for forty-four years now. Manuel Marulanda has been fighting for forty-four years. The other leader, “Gabino,” the head of the ELN, whom I also met, has been fighting equally long. I think there’s been too little pressure on the parties to go to the negotiation table and end it, and they have too much interest — the guerrillas and the paramilitary forces — to continue it, because they are drug-fueled. They have, from the narcotics industry, money to continue. It has to end. We have to push for an end.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But what happened when you brought them to Norway, and you actually got them involved in discussions there?

JAN EGELAND: Well, it was fantastic, because I had six commanders of the FARC out there with the government. Three or four of them had never been out of the jungle before, and then they’re suddenly in Scandinavia and Paris and France, etc., where we said, “Listen, the Cold War is over. See for yourself. Here, socialists, conservatives sit next to each other in parliaments, and they bargain for improvements for the working class that you say you’re fighting for.” The people went back, I think, pretty converted. They met their old comrades there, and they were asked to put all their clothing, all their belongings from Europe in a pile, and they — it was torched to avoid tracking devices. And then they were made to retort all the conciliary statements of Scandinavia. And the leader of that delegation, Raul Reyes, whom I had — was my interlocutor for years, was the one killed three, four weeks ago in Ecuador in the Colombian insurgent act.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip of Raul Reyes. He was interviewed by Mario Murillo in 1996.

    RAUL REYES: [translated] For peace, there has to be a policy that comes from the state. That means there has to be guarantees for the insurgency to sit with the government and to discuss about the new Colombia we should all construct. Right now, there are no guarantees. Right now, continued threats against the leaders of the guerrilla movements, the proliferation of murderers and massacres, continues.

AMY GOODMAN: Information is still coming out right now about how that massacre or killing took place with the Colombian government going over the border into Ecuador — now, the question of how much US logistical and informational support was given to make that happen. Jan Egeland?

JAN EGELAND: Well, it just shows that the thing is continuing, and the bitter reality is that the FARC could have made a historic compromise. They had the opportunity to do that. Manuel Marulanda, the second man in command, “El Mono Jojoy,” as he’s called, the military leader, and also Raul Reyes, did not do what they should have done to reach out to Andres Pastrana, the president at the time, who said, “I’m willing to sign an agreement with you.” Now, of the six people who came to Oslo, two are dead: Raul Reyes and Ivan Rios, also killed this last month. And a third one is in jail here in the United States for — Simon Trinidad, because he was taken and extradited on drug-related abuses. They should have made a deal. They continued fighting. They thought they could do more on the battlefield. But there is no military solution for this conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: And what Plan Colombia means for Colombia, the US pouring millions into the regime, also known for giving that regime support to the paramilitaries in Colombia?

JAN EGELAND: Well, Plan Colombia is meant to end the drug problem, which is causing immense misery also in North America. Of course, Colombia is the main supplier of cocaine to the world and to North America. What should be discussed more is — you know, maybe less, you know, Black Hawk helicopters and so on — but more, how do we end the conflict, because it’s not going to be ended by helicopters or military assistance.

AMY GOODMAN: The situation in Gaza?

JAN EGELAND: Gaza is another outrage in the world which is getting better. I mean, there is 50 percent more peace and less war than 1989, but the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is among the few which have gone in the wrong direction. Today, it’s a ticking time bomb. And I cannot say enough how I feel that Israel and the Palestinian leadership are doing their utmost, it seems, to undermine the security for their own people for future generations.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip of you in Gaza. This is what you had to say in August of 2006.

    JAN EGELAND: Gaza is a ticking time bomb. You cannot seal off an area which is a little bit bigger than the city of Stockholm in extension only, have 1.4 million people, of whom 800,000 are youth and children, and then have 200 artillery shells going in there every day, virtually.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jan Egeland speaking at the United Nations. What has to happen today — Israel, from Gaza to the bombing of Lebanon, which you fiercely condemned?

JAN EGELAND: Well, Israel, I think, now has to realize that there has been a generation of military responses to terror, terror which is — there’s no other word for the missiles going into Israel. They’re going randomly, and they’re seeking out civilians. But the military response has only made the problem worse. In Gaza, there are long lines of people who would like to volunteer to be suicide bombers. I also used the image once: you don’t put hundreds of thousands of youth in a cage, give them no hope, and believe that they will be choirboys and choirgirls or boys scouts; they will become extremists. So, negotiations is the only way, and of course you have to negotiate with Hamas. Why not? I mean, I organized with friends the famous Norwegian channel between the terrorist, Arafat, on behalf of the terrorist movement PLO at that time, 1992, and the Israeli government, which had real leaders at that time — Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres — who really said, “Of course we have to reach an historic compromise. There has been enough suffering on both sides.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: But in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, unlike Congo or Colombia, there has been perhaps more news coverage and attention by the world media to this conflict than any other, yet the ability to move forward in terms of a peace agreement continues to elude all of the diplomats. To what degree is the United States sort of enabling the continued lack of resolution by continuing to so uncritically support one Israeli government after another in whatever policy they choose to engage in?

JAN EGELAND: Well, of course, one of the many fallouts of Iraq and Afghanistan and 9/11 was that there was no US-led push for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It fell off the table, basically. As Europeans, as internationalists, we have to recognize that the one single most effective force for peace in the Middle East will be the United States. Europe cannot force Israel, for historic reasons, to do anything. The US can put pressure on the military power which is Israel. There’s only one military power there now, and it’s Israel. But they can also, with Egypt, put pressure on Palestinian leaderships, which have done their utmost to lose any opportunity to lose any opportunity. But then, there has — it cannot only be a sustained effort at the last year of a presidency; it has to be throughout the American presidencies. So President Bush has now set the thing in motion again. The next president has to have this on top of their agenda for the next four years.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Iraq — Jan Egeland, you recently wrote, “Every year since the invasion in 2003 America spent six times more in Iraq alone than the United Nations system has had to invest on all peace, human rights, relief, development and environmental efforts around the globe.” What about Iraq right now?

JAN EGELAND: Well, Iraq is — it is better overall now because of the surge, because of Shias not — well, it may change now, actually, and many of the things that were good with the surge are changing as we speak. But listen, it is costing $140, $150, $160 billion this year. The total UN budget for the whole world and for making peace in Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, northern Uganda, big parts of the Congo, Kosovo, Nepal, East Timor — and I could go on — I mean, ten places where the UN did make peace with allies cost like a few days of UN — US investment in Iraq. What should be done? It’s hard to say, really. But one of the things is that the region has to be brought in, the international organizations have to be brought in, and everybody has to be told in more unequivocal terms it’s in your interest to not have the vacuum in Iraq. The whole region has to fall into place again.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for joining us in our firehouse studio, Jan Egeland, former UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Field Coordinator, now serving as the Director-General of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, has written the book A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity.

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