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Ibtisam Azem

Exclusive: Kuwait UN ambassador makes gloomy predictions about Middle East

Mansour Al-Otaibi is Kuwait's representative at the United Nations [UN]

Date of publication: 7 June, 2019

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Interview: Kuwait's ambassador to the UN Mansour Al-Otaibi spoke to The New Arab about the way the Middle East and North Africa region is heading.

For the second time in two years, Kuwait - the only Arab member state in the UN Security Council - is due to chair the international committee's meeting in June.

The Gulf state, deemed to be the region's mediator, has been praised for demonstrating remarkable efforts during its two years at the Security Council, particularly in its attempt to shed light on Arab and humanitarian issues, including - but not limited to - Syria and Palestine.

Ahead of the June meeting, The New Arab's UN correspondent Ibtisam Azem in New York interviewed the emirate's ambassador and president of the Security Council to discuss Arab and regional affairs, which have in recent weeks witnessed a flare-up in tensions.

What will be your main focus during the presidency of the Security Council in June?

The main theme will be the humanitarian situation and relevant issues, including preventive diplomacy and the prevention of conflicts. 

These are issues raised by Kuwait more than one-and-a-half years ago, even before becoming a member of the UN Security Council. Our role as an Arab nation is to primarily work on consolidating the Security Council's relations with the Arab League. For that reason we plan to hold more a number of high-level meetings attended by deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Hamad al-Sabah - to discuss the issue of missing persons in armed conflicts and wars worldwide. We are drafting a law for a Security Council resolution to tackle this issue.

We also expect to hold another session on the prevention of conflicts and a third on cooperation between the Security Council and the Arab League. 

In addition to regular monthly briefings, we will convene a session to discuss work methods at the Security Council to look at possibilities of improving and developing the work flow.

According to the UN and relevant institutions, the Syrian issue consists of three layers: the political, the chemical and the humanitarian. Kuwait and Sweden have been partners in a number of successful initiatives that passed different resolutions related to entry of humanitarian aid and the humanitarian situation. What is your insight on the latest developments in Idlib?

There is consensus in the Security Council on the necessity to deliver humanitarian aid to Idlib and to protect civilians, but things on the ground are different. The Security Council has discussed the situation in Syria over the past seven weeks in multiple sessions and from via a variety of lenses, including political and humanitarian.

The ongoing situation in Idlib was addressed even in sessions in which it was not scheduled to be discussed - the last of which was the closed session attended by UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen.

It was also important that the US Special Representative for Syrian Engagement, James Jeffrey, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergey Vershinin, were present, but disputes on the political process are still ongoing. 

Pedersen said that all the details related to forming a constitutional committee are there but we need transparency and balance. This should include all segments of the Syrian people. The negotiations also include discussions on the formation of a six-member constitutional committee with a Russian proposal dubbed 4+2.

How do you see the situation on the ground and its affect on the political direction?

The general perspective is that unless the Syrian crisis benefits from the existing proposals - namely forming a constitutional committee, continuing the political process, writing a constitution and running UN-supervised elections in which refugees, including those who live abroad, take part - nothing will change.

The international actors have also discussed additional issues. This includes the fact that 60 percent of lands in Syria are controlled by the government. However, there are many parts that are unstable and not under its control - not to mention that approximately half of Syrians do not live in the regions controlled by the government and are exposed to displacement, internally and externally. These are just some of the points of discussion which, most importantly, take us back to the main point: a solution for Syria must be achieved political and not militarily. 

All indications show that the Syrian regime - backed by Russia, Iran and other parties - want to recapture control of all land. So far, it is clear that the military solution will tip the balance. To date, nothing has changed. If we look at de-escalation zones, we find that most of the areas were temporary security arrangements that subsequently escalated once more, and unfortunately, it is civilians that suffer the most. We see attacks from all parties involved, as well as the targeting of civilians, schools and hospitals. The result is quite simply enormous humanitarian suffering. 

The UN Special Envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, warned of a civil war and potential aggravation of the situation in his last briefing. What is your position on the latest developments?

We support Ghassan Salame and his work and the UN was close to bringing all actors to the table to convene a conference. Unfortunately, we distanced ourselves from the political solution. Despite the efforts made, it is clear that the last military operation and attack on Tripoli is still ongoing. We hope that there will be a ceasefire that would prevent destruction in the capital. 

Until now, and based on what Salame has relayed to us, no faction has managed to edge closer to heavily-populated areas. We could potentially see an enormous humanitarian crisis unfold, as well as the displacement of a large number of civilians, should there be escalated fighting in Tripoli - where more than two million people live. We are focusing on supporting the efforts of the UN Secretary-General's and his special envoy, and we sincerely hope that the political process will resume as soon as possible.

The sale of arms to all factions involved continues despite the current embargo. Is the Security Council fulfilling its duty to implement the relevant resolutions?

This is an important point of which Mr Salame has warned that there are violations of the arms embargo from all parties. The violations are currently happening across land, air and sea, and the Security Council must take measures to ensure that its resolutions are translated into practice. Unfortunately, we require political will and commitment in the Council. Who is responsible for implementing its resolutions? The answer is the United Nations' member states.

The members states must implement and commit to the Council's resolutions, as they are considered binding. Lack of commitment means that the conflict and destruction will continue, which will complicate the issue and make a future solution more difficult to attain.

To what extent are you worried about the future of Stockholm Agreement between the parties in Yemen?

Although approximately six months have passed since the Stockholm Agreement, it is very unfortunate that the agreement has not been implemented until now. It seems that the envoy is experiencing disputes with the parties involved, in particular the Yemeni government. 

In fact, the Security Council is the one that is facing this problem. The international community supports the UN Secretary-General and his Envoy, Martin Griffiths, as well as the implementation of the relevant resolutions and agreements, including Stockholm's. There have been many violations of the Hodeidah Agreement, and the Security Council must exercise pressure to ensure the implementation of its resolutions.

The Houthi rebel group declared a one-sided withdrawal and redeployment from ports but it is difficult to verify that the move honours all the demands and conditions agreed upon, including the deployment of local officials, some of whom worked in the ports prior to 2014. 

Likewise, it is also difficult to verify the redeployment itself. Meanwhile, there are other matters that have not yet been implemented in relation to hostages and detainees. In addition to this, all matters relating to Taiz have not been implemented. The concerned party here is the Houthi rebel group, which has yet to implement even the previous resolutions. 

If we take a look at Resolution 2216, the resolution demands the Houthi group withdraws from Sanaa too - not only from Hodeida. It is clear that the divisibility of solutions have not borne fruit. 

Yemen is passing through the biggest humanitarian disaster in the 21st Century, according to UN reports. Cholera prevails and millions are on the brink of famine. What are the steps needed to be taken by the UN and international community to prevent more deterioration of the humanitarian situation?

Undoubtedly, a political solution is the way to bring an end to the tragic humanitarian situation in Yemen. The international community agrees on the importance of doing more work to alleviate human sufferings - which no one can deny - in Yemen. Even before the start of the military operation and before 2011, the humanitarian situation was deteriorating. 

Approximately 50 percent of Yemenis lacked food security, according to UN reports. With the start of the political crisis and military operations, the humanitarian situation further exacerbated. 

More than half of humanitarian aid is provided by the coalition member states and there are some violations by the Houthi group, which have been confirmed by Mark Lowcock, UN Secretary-General's Humanitarian Envoy, during his last briefing in Security Council. 

These violations include the fact that the Houthis are the ones who hinder issuing visas to humanitarian sector workers, but we demand halt of violations from all parties, regardless.

But the military operation carried out by the Saudi-led coalition, of which Kuwait is a member, led to the aggravation of the humanitarian situation, let alone the violations that were committed.

The coalition took a number of steps to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and member states of the coalition provide most of the aid. They provide them to UN organisations. Kuwait gave more than $600 million worth of humanitarian aid, designated for Yemen, to the relevant UN agencies. This is delivered to all Yemenis with no exception, and without being designated only to certain categories or specific regions.

The coalition takes many measures to ensure that civilians and infrastructure are not harmed by any military air operation. There were some errors, though. We are against any targeting of civilians. Anything that violates international law must not happen. There are also ballistic missile and tank attacks carried out by the other party. But, undoubtedly, we condemn the deliberate targeting of civilians anywhere and anytime.

Regarding the 'Deal of the Century', it is expected that it will be officially announced in June, during which Kuwait will chair the Security council. Is there any expected meeting in this respect?

At the Security Council level, there is currently no planning. Yes, it has been declared that the deal will be announced in June. We are aware that its economic part will be announced at the Manama conference. The Arab position on the deal was clearly declared in the Tunis summit - the Arab position is not contradictory but is in harmony with what Palestine demands.

You are renowned for your vigorous activity in the Security Council in cases that support the Palestinian issue. But you encountered a number of setbacks due to unconditional US support for Israel's occupation.

Are there any real options available at the international level - the UN and its institutions - that Palestinians have not yet tried which need more attention? Either in relation to protection or other issues, such as the blockade of Gaza and settlements?

The humanitarian situation has been continuously deteriorating in Gaza, since the start of the blockade, more than ten years ago. We have been trying over the past years to shed light on the humanitarian situation in Gaza in different ways. We held more than one session specially for Gaza, during the Any Other Business time slots.

We have started requesting from UNRWA's Commissioner-General to present his briefing in the Security Council and highlight the refugees and humanitarian situations there. We consider that a pressing necessity. As you know, UNRWA is currently in an acute financial crisis. We have actually noticed that aid funds are not adequately supplied and this has been complicated by the blockade imposed by the Israeli occupation. We are here talking about almost 2 million people, of whom 60 percent are unemployed. Hence, it is necessary to continue highlighting the humanitarian situation there.

In regard to granting international protection to the Palestinian people, you requested from the Secretary-General to provide a report and recommendations in this respect, and he did. But the case remains shelved. Is there any discussion regarding this in the Security Council?

We have tried and suggested that the Security Council visit the Occupied Palestinian Territories, like it does in other regions, but even this visit has not taken place - amid a US and Israeli rejectionist attitude - let alone deploying and establishing peacekeeping operations.

To deploy any force, consent from relevant parties must be taken, including from the acting authorities in the occupied territories. It is difficult to deploy a force when there is a major party that does not give consent. However, it is necessary that we do not stop suggesting this, regardless.

What is your insight on the additional tensions in the region and developments on Iran? What is your position?

The developments are serious and worrying. Our region suffered lots of crises during the last forty years, during which it has seen at least three devastating wars, with financial, human and natural losses, and more. The solution is dialogue in order to reach an agreement that ensures respect of international law principals and the Charter of the United Nations by all, as well as to ensure that there is no interference in internal affairs and that there is respect of countries sovereignty; sovereignty, equality and good neighbourly relationships. For this reason, Kuwait always supports dialogue between Iran and neighbouring countries.

Iran is a neighbouring country and it will always be. It is a Muslim country and has interests in the region, but we refuse interference in Gulf countries' affairs and we demand that it halts any interference. We also urge to continue dialogue in order to reach an agreement and have reassurances. We are living in a time in which building of trust is desperately needed.

This is an edited version of the interview published in our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby al-Jadeed, accessible on this link.

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