Interview with Mona Juul: Norwegian ambassador to the UN
In an exclusive interview with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed Newspaper (The New Arab’s sister Arabic site), the Norwegian Ambassador to the UN in New York and the president of the Security Counsel for the month of January, Mona Juul, said that she has no regrets regarding the Oslo talks that led to the eponymous accords despite the regrettable situation on the ground in Palestine today. She expressed her hope that a solution in accordance with UN resolutions is still possible.
Ibtisam Azem, Al-Araby al-Jadeed’s senior correspondent at the UN, sat down with Ambassador Mona Juul in New York to talk about her country’s priorities, climate change, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and Israel.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Ibtisam Azem.: In an interview I conducted recently with Michael Lynk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the OPT, he said that “because of the exceptional imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, the only way this occupation is going to end ...is if the international community steps in decisively to hold Israel accountable by excluding it from trade and cultural and investment agreements, by ending arms sales to Israel… until it agrees to end its occupation, removing settlements and recognising the Palestinians right to independence and freedom.” Do you agree with his approach? If not, why not?
Mona Juul: Our approach when it comes to the Israeli Palestinian conflict is that we strongly believe that a solution should be found through negotiations. We support all SC resolutions, including those who are promoting the two-state solution. That's why we have over the years, since Oslo accords, been pushing for negotiations. At the same time, we have worked very hard to strengthen the Palestinian Authority, among others by coordinating the donor assistance all the way since Oslo.
"Settlements are after all buildings. I think it's not necessarily the end of the two state solution. But then there has to be an agreement on how to share that piece of land"
I.A.: When it comes to the Israeli occupation and violations against Palestinians, the international community speaks constantly against them but with zero consequence... why should Israel care about statements that don't go beyond statements, when it continues to profit from the occupation, economically, land control and more?
M.J.: I think both Israelis and the Palestinians will benefit from the two-state solution. I don't think that Israel as a country is benefiting from occupation as you put it…But Israel can speak for itself. I think it will be also in Israel's interest to have a two-state solution because occupation is not something that can go on forever. There will have to be a way to end the occupation and find a peaceful solution.
There is a need to talk to all sides. I mean, we as Norway have always sort of been favouring dialogue rather than a sort of boycott or not talking to somebody. We think that in order to make peace you have to talk to your enemies and to those that you disagree with. We have a traditional way of talking to everybody, even with some organisations that are considered terrorist by some countries. I know it's a little different with Israeli Palestinian conflict, although it wasn't when we insisted the PLO should to be included in talks at the time. It was designated as a terrorist organisation. And so, I still think that any kind of measures, to boycott or to exclude someone, will actually not solve the problem.
I.A.: You were one of the main initiators of the Oslo secret talks that led to the accords. Almost 30 years later, the situation on the ground is worse for the Palestinians and the two-state solution seem to be fading away more than any other time. Do you regret putting the talks in motion knowing what you know today? And what went wrong?
M.J.: I have no regrets at all. I think it's never wrong to bring parties together and to try to forge peace and reconciliation, which actually was done in the Oslo process. The process was two things, it was an agreement on sort of incremental implementation of different issues. I mean, it was a step by step agreement. So, it wasn't the full-fledged peace agreement there.
The second thing was the mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, which I think also was a very correct thing to do. Having the PLO sitting in Tunis, being sort of labelled as a terrorists organisation not only by Israel but also by the US, I think that was a worse situation than what Oslo brought about. It brought the Palestinians gradually back and it was supposed to lead to a two-state solution.
But then a lot of things happened, it will take me probably a book to explain what went wrong. One general answer is that both sides stopped or didn't do what they were supposed to do according to the agreements. I think also, another important thing, what happened was very much that the one guarantor and the signature of the deal on the Israeli side, Yitzhak Rabin, was killed. I think that made it more difficult, because later on then parties in Israel who were sort of against the agreement came into power.
Also, on the Palestinian side things developed in a way that was not necessarily good. As far as I see it, every sort of attempt to bring them together, with the backing of the international community to come to an agreement on the two-state solution, hasn't been possible. And that’s about, both political will and political ability. I don't think it serves anybody to put the blame on one side or the other.
But what we are very clear on and have been from the very beginning is that sort of any unilateral actions for instance, like settlement, like evictions, like demolition, all these kinds of things, they are detrimental to a process leading to a two state solution for sure. And we have been very clear on condemning that. But again, we just cannot give up trying to bring them back to the table and find a way to solve this issue...That's why we decided that we wanted to bring that issue again upfront on ministerial level in January. Because one of the really sad parts is that that conflict has become so much pushed to the sideline also with what's going on in the region, from Syria to Yemen and many other issues. It deserves to be at the centre of our attention, because it's really an issue that should have been solved. The solution is there. It's just that we need to have the right political will to do it.
I.A.: We have around 700 thousand settlers in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. You lived there and worked as an ambassador for your country and you know very well that reality on the ground looks different. As a matter of fact, we have today one state reality with different systems applied differently to Palestinians and Israeli Jews.
M.J.: I don't believe in a one state solution. Some say that it will be a reality if things are not changing. But that’s not a solution, because that will, for all practical purposes, mean sort of continuing the occupation in one way or the other with Israel sort of in charge. Of course, demographically, it will probably change in favor of Palestinian majority, which will mean sort of the end of the Jewish state, which I don't think is acceptable either for Israel. As for the settlement we have been condemning them and saying it loud and clear. I think that is also being said by most of international community. If the parties were able to agree on borders, there are ways to deal with settlements. Settlements are after all buildings. I think it's not necessarily the end of the two state solution. But then there has to be an agreement on how to share that piece of land.
I.A.: How confident are you that the Russians are not going to ask for a vote on Syria cross-border resolution in January?
M.J.: Our very clear understanding of the resolution 2585 (2021) is that it’s expires in July. We see no reason for that to be challenged. Also, the resolution asks the UN Secretary General to present a report on progress so far. That report came, and we had the discussion of it in the council last month. Of course there are somewhat different views on what had taken place, but we don't see any reason why there should be any sort of changes on the understanding.
I.A.: At the beginning of the Syrian revolution we heard many western countries saying that Assad must step down. We no longer hear such statements. Is there any united strategy, at least for western countries, to confront Assad’s policies of stalling and wasting time?
M.J.: I can only speak on behalf of Norway. It’s true that everybody is frustrated about the lack of progress with the constitutional committee, but in the last Syria briefing by the U.N. envoy Geir Pedersen, we heard that all member states expressed their support for that process and for the special envoy, who is working relentlessly on trying to push forward with this. Despite the challenges, he feels that they're still worthwhile trying for another round. He also talked about continuing to work on parallel and step for step approach, but also taking into a greater extent all relevant actor also outside that have a stake in the conflict. It's extremely important that the Security Council is backing the work of Pedersen. We cannot afford to give up that political track. We know that there are several other tracks, but the UN is involved and is in contact with all actors here.
In the meantime, we are engaged on the humanitarian field, because the suffering of the Syrian people is enormous. In the last SC meeting we heard also the report from Martin Griffiths where he pointed to the fact that it's not going in the right direction in any sense, and that's why we as Norway have opened up also for the so-called early recovery programmes. And we have been stepping up on that. We also hear from the US and others that they are willing also to see what could be done within the sort of early recovery part. So, we have to work in parallel on the two tracks.
" I think it will be also in Israel's interest to have a two-state solution because occupation is not something that can go on forever. There will have to be a way to end the occupation and find a peaceful solution"
I.A.: The UN is predicting that Afghanistan will face the worst humanitarian crises in the world in 2022. Why are things not moving in regards to humanitarian aid?
M.J.: Again, I can only speak on behalf of my country and we are certainly working very actively in order to make sure that maximum humanitarian assistance is getting into Afghanistan through both the UN system and different humanitarian organisation, the NGOs that are doing a remarkable job over there. All kinds of mechanism that can help providing assistance.
The SC adopted a resolution 2615 (2021) that tries to work on the issue of aid despite sanctions. We have certainly been among those countries that have been willing to go as far as possible within the sanctions regime in order to make sure that assistance is reaching Afghanistan.
I.A.: What would a failing state, or total collapse of the Afghani institutions mean for the country and the region? And to the issue of terrorism?
M.J.: I don't think it's in anybody's interest that we will have sort of a collapse of Afghanistan. I mean, that has to be avoided by all costs because of the suffering of the Afghani people.
And as I said, we are a very constructive partner in order to make sure that as much as we can to help sort of save both the Afghani people and the country's economy. But it's not only up to us, we have to work together with other countries.
We are also making sure that the UN can continue to have a very strong presence in Afghanistan. The renewal of its mandate is in March and we have to make sure that the UN has the necessary tools of helping Afghan people. There's so much good work being done. And we have to make sure that continues. At the same time, we have to make sure that the UN is there also to talk to the Taliban, to make clear to them that there are certain things that need to come from their side, women and girls’ rights, education, inclusive government and things like that.
I think the UN is very well placed to have that dialogue because they can speak on behalf of the international community. And there is no secret that we also have had dialogue with Taliban going back many years and we continue to have that. And we would also very much like to return to Afghanistan with our presence and with our embassies, like many other countries, but we have to be sure that it is done in a way that we can actually be there and be helpful on what we really think it's needed. The situation is terrible but there are also some positive things going on.
I.A.: The UN Security Council failed in December to adopt a resolution on climate and security because of the Russian veto, while India and China both also failed to lend support. Is this the end of the issue at the Council?
M.J.: We were disappointed that the climate security resolution was vetoed. Still, we will continue to work on that agenda, which we knew is a controversial one for some. But we think that with the approach in which we are looking at the country’s or region’s specific situation, and to really listen to those who live in those situations, where there is an obvious, at least from our point of view, link between climate change, in the sense of less land to feed the population, flooding that makes people have to evacuate their homes, food scarcity as part of droughts and more.
For instance, in the Sahel...countries in that part of the world have more conflict and more people have to flee their homes and there are more contests of land and resources. Some are even establishing the link to terrorism, which of course is something that you can always discuss. But for us and for so many other countries...in order to be able to make the right analysis, and to design the right kind of response, we need to have the climate factor in there. And that's why when we work on mandates for peacekeeping operations, we always try to include that the operation on the ground needs also to take into account the consequences of climate change and to design how they operate also based on what they experience on the ground, and of course also to strengthen Secretary General's capacity to look into this question. So, I don't think it is completely lost with the veto. We will this year co-chair the informal working group in the council, together with Kenya, and we will continue to work with all council members and others to see how we can find a way to have focus on this issue despite the veto.
Mona Juul is currently the Norwegian Ambassador to the UN in New York. Ambassador Mona Juul was previously Ambassador to the United Kingdom (2014-2018), Director General for Security Policy and the High North in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2011-2014), Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative at the Permanent Mission to the UN in New York (2005-2010) and Chairman of the 1st Committee of the 61 session of the United Nations General Assembly (2006).
Ibtisam Azem is a Palestinian novelist and journalist. Her latest novel “The Book of Disappearance” was translated into English and published by Syracuse University Press in the US.