A Discussion with Dr. Youssef Mahmoud, the Inaugural Sérgio Vieira de Mello Endowed Visiting Chair at Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations

On Monday, February 23, 2015, The Journal had the unique privilege to interview Dr. Youssef Mahmoud[*] at the Seton Hall School of Diplomacy. Paige Thomasson, a Business Marketing Associate with the Journal and Danny Dubbaneh, the Executive Editor for the Journal, sat down with Dr. Mahmoud to discuss his vast career with the United Nations, vision for the de Mello Chair, lessons from post conflict reconstruction, and the role for women in mediation and peacemaking.

 Journal: You were just named the Sérgio Vieira de Mello endowed visiting chair in the Seton Hall School of Diplomacy. What do you hope to accomplish in your new position with the School?

 Mahmoud: Well, I hope to use my experience as a practitioner to help students and faculty reflect on the various subjects that they discuss, both in class and outside, and give them different perspectives, whether it is negotiation, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, mediation, or diplomacy and international relations. But from the point of view of someone who has engaged in such aspects, so that’s one. Second is to help students in particular raise their gaze to the global and multilateral level, and see the connection between what they do in class and what’s out there, because everything is interconnected in this world. And then the third aspect is provide advice, as requested by students who are about to graduate, or who have graduated, about career prospects based on what I know and based on what is out there. So overall, to summarize, is to sort of contribute to the intellectual growth of the students and faculty, provide practical experience on subjects they are engaged in, and sort of provide advice, career or research-wise.

Journal: So, second part of that question, what does the Sérgio Vieira de Mello’s legacy mean to you personally, and did you ever have a chance to work with him?

Mahmoud: The main reason I am here is because the School found out that I worked with him. We worked together in Zaire, which is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, we worked together in Cambodia, and we worked on various issues in Africa when he was appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights. So he and I go a long way. He has this saying that goes, “When you are involved in peace and helping others move from violence to politics, or when you are helping others reconstruct their broken lives as a result of violence, you have to be like water on marble.” In other words, don’t be discouraged by how hard that marble is, how hard that rock is, you need to understand the marble so you know how to use the water and direct it. But be patient. That is the ultimate lesson. If you are pouring water and doing the best you can, and you expect indentations tomorrow on the marble you’re going to be disappointed. But, he said, just look at the shore. Is it the water or the rock that is stronger? Obviously it is the water that is stronger. So that is the work of peace. Peace is not a natural state. Just like health, we take it for granted. And our aspirations for peace tend to be depicted negatively. It’s through the absence of violence; it’s through stopping guns, it’s through dealing with gangs. It’s not a starting point. It’s something that we seek through containment, through sanctions, through wars. And so these are the things that I shared with him, reconstructing states, or societies, or as a country; it’s a long term process. And therefore patience is fundamental.

Journal: I like that analogy. Can you tell us what your childhood experience was like and what events propelled you toward a career in peacekeeping and post conflict reconstruction? What steps do you recommend to students at a School of Diplomacy wishing to chart a similar career?

Mahmoud: My childhood, I am the oldest of nine. Ten actually, one died. And my parents were illiterate, but that didn’t mean they were not wise. My father could maybe sign with his thumb. So I was raised to negotiate, upward with my father, who treated me as a peer, and downward with my siblings. I have educated them, married them, you name it.  The youngest is 45. And so I learned unconsciously, most of the traits of collaborative leadership from dealing with my family and my siblings. I also learned the limitations of coercive power from that as well, even though culturally I am the oldest and, in many cultures you have the birthright respect owed to you by your siblings. They stand when I come into the room; they call me not by my first name, and so on and so forth. But managing that family and creating some balance was school for me.  And really, diplomacy was something that I got into by accident rather than design. I was always interested in human relations; I was also always interested in how to get along, how people get along, and why people don’t get along. I was always interested in languages, and so that’s what I pursued, all the way to the Ph.D. Linguistics. What I do, what I’ve done has nothing to do with that. But I was always interested in the higher purpose of that organization. I was always someone to ask that “why” question. Why people don’t get along. Why is the United Nations doing this? Why? Why is a difficult question, but it is a question that gives meaning to our lives. Why do I get up every morning? Why should anyone care? And if you ask the right question, why, in a meaningful way, with intent, then it opens up possibilities. And then you can say how and what and where and all the W questions that would follow.  So I was always a curious person, asking why, almost to the annoyance of many of my… So I got interested in the political purposes of this organization, of this global organization. I, by nature, by circumstances, I am an insatiable learner. Going to school is a privilege. My parents didn’t go to school. So I read. That’s the first thing. I read about the context in which I work, to get meaning. I asked people. I looked for mentors. The other thing that helped me is, I have learned, through mentors, to plan ahead. So I said, “Where would I like to be five years from now, ten years from now? In what field? I have a job, but would like some fulfillment.” Once I said I want to be in the area of peace and security, and I don’t have the degrees for it, what could I do differently in order to achieve that, in order to be a part of this organization, the great work, however maligned it is, however weak it is. So then I identified the gaps. I went back to school, at night. I got certificates, not a Master’s [degree] like you, because I was full time, I was a father, I had to go. So I went to school and demystified international relations, diplomacy, conflict resolution, all of that. I demystified strategic thinking, strategic planning, two courses. And then, because I knew in the linguistic field in which I had my first job, that it was going to be, by the time comes, it was going to be as the French say plafonner, I would “hit the ceiling.” Plateau. Thank you. And then I started volunteering for UN missions abroad. Mostly as a drafter, as management, because I’ve done management and training and planning and budgeting and things like that, that I learned. But I wanted to be in a peace operation, where there is political negotiation, where there is trouble, where there are peacekeepers, you know. So I volunteered in ’92, to Cambodia and that’s where I met Sérgio. Sérgio at that time was the director of refugees at the repatriation program, repatriating refugees from neighboring Thailand and negotiating with the Khmer Rouge who were at the border and did not want to be without refugees because that’s where they had their campaign, that was their political base. And so we used to negotiate all of that, so that is how I came to be interested and became a peacemaker, a peace builder, a peacekeeper.

Journal: Thank you for sharing. Given your experience with the United Nations in Chad and the Central African Republic, what issues should people be cognizant of when approaching post conflict reconstruction and did you use a general framework or was each country an individual case?

Mahmoud: Each country is an individual case but there is an overall framework for supporting efforts towards peace-building and post conflict reconstruction. The first step I used to teach at NYU is called peace and conflict assessment. The first step is start with a context, analyze it, because each conflict and each situation is different.  One of the principal reasons why you must start with a context and understand it, understand it particularly from the eyes of those at the receiving end of your support, is that because you may do harm in trying to help. There is a principle of do no harm that is integrated in context assessment or conflict assessment. Second is that peace building is not what you do, it’s what they do with what you do. And so therefore, throughout your analysis you’re going to discover, you’re going to find out, what are the resilient capacities for peace in that country, no matter how broken it is. How did people in the past keep peace and negotiate conflict peacefully? Who are the leaders at the community level? At the provincial level? The national level? Who are the spoilers? Who would gain from the continuation of the conflict? Who are the regional stakeholders that could benefit from the continuation of the conflict or the peaceful resolution of the conflict? Most of the problems that afflict these countries, as I am sure you know, are transnational in origin and effect. Syria is not a country, it’s a proxy war of the region. So is Libya. So is Ukraine. No mere problem is confined within a territory. The line between the local and the global have blurred. So that is very important to do that context analysis in order to do this. The other one is,  if you are a mediator or a negotiator, you better know your trade. So, I was lucky enough to have worked with and learned from mediators. By observing them. By going to school and learning the art and craft of mediation. And so, you need to understand that and have experience in it. One of the fundamental skills in mediation is listening. Negotiations, they often talk about them as talks. Syria “talks”, Ukraine “talks”. As a mediator you don’t talk, actually. You ask questions and you listen. And that requires a skill. Because when you are in the presence of two belligerents, one is demonizing the other, one is the enemy of the other, one that believes that what divides them is not the differences or the issue but each other: it’s him, it’s his religion, it’s his…when in fact, what divides them is the difference of opinion, difference of values. But they confuse the difference of values with difference of each other, they personalize it. So they are not listening to each other. And when you are a mediator, and you listen to each party and you summarize each party, they are listening to you, they are listening to what one another through you, in fact. And therefore, they might be empathetic and see the reality not from the high tower of their own village, but from a much, much higher tower, or several towers. So mediation skills for diplomacy are very important. And negotiations and mediations are time tested skills in diplomacy.

Journal: I would like to add another question to the mix. This last summer I took a class in Rome on Catholic Peacemaking. I asked a bishop at the time, “What is the role of women? Do you see a future for women in the role of negotiation and mediation?” His answer was, “No.”

Mahmoud: No?

Journal: No, because of how women are viewed and the response to how women are viewed when there comes to be an item that needs to be mediated or negotiated, that women are considered a sideshow. I read your article for the International Peace Institute on the human rights of women in Egypt. What do you believe is the future for women in negotiation and mediation?

Mahmoud: I don’t see a future for mediation without women, let me just start with that. And I don’t see…so what is the ultimate aim for mediation?

Journal: Peace.

Mahmoud: It is sustainable agreement that would hopefully lead to peace. It’s helping people move from violence to politics, so they can achieve their aims through political peaceful means rather than through the battle of the gun. Now, before you mediate a conflict you better understand what it is about. And in my experience throughout the cultures where I’ve worked, the entity, the stakeholder that gives you the insights is the woman. Why? Forgive me. In multicultural multiethnic, first, women marry across ethnic groups. Ethnic religions. Second, women have power that may not be public. But they have power over the fighters. All kind of power, we don’t have time to go over it, I can give you many cultures. So if they are excluded from the analysis of the conflict, and from crafting the solution, that agreement will not be self-sustainable. Second, women by nature, there is a book called Unleashing the Female Mind, women have a different…they tend to be connectors, first of all, because they are the family. They have so many different perspectives on what keeps a family together because of their thing that…bearing children that men cannot. Thus they have a different umbilical cord with the various stages of family that prevails. And they are the anchor. That’s just a fact. And so, if you if you do not tap that perspective, then you’re anchoring it on something else that is not necessarily sustainable. Now, there are places where women being visibly at the table may not be appropriate, depending on the culture, but that doesn’t mean there are no parallel forums where you can consult them. No parallel forums where they could be advisors. But in Africa it’s not an issue regardless of the religion. I don’t think Kofi Annan would have succeeded in the Kenyan problem if Graça Machel was not there. And women associated with her that yes, she can talk to them as a woman, she could talk to them as a mother, she was a role model. And she had no nonsense. In fact she had [ruled?] her husband when he was president of Mozambique, just no one knew about it. Men tend to use power, acquire power, and exercise power in different ways that might not always be conducive to peaceful resolution. And in a culture where men in the presence of women, particularly older women, have a different attitude. I’ve witnessed it many times, and inside the African Republic I’ll give you an example. Guerilla movements would come to a village in Africa, not so in other countries. And if they start burning or looting or want to rape. What the older woman does, is she takes off her scarf, bears her hair, and kneels. In that culture, you will be visited for every ill imaginable for the rest of your life. So you don’t want to cross that line of an older woman who can barely sit let alone lean and get up. So when you do your research that is an unbelievable resource. You don’t want to. And I’ve used it most of the time, particularly in ceasefire negotiations. Women, more importantly, because peace is about health, it’s about education, it’s about jobs. Men, busy with power, don’t always put that on the agenda. So these issues, which are fundamental for peace: job security, voice, and justice, tend to be an agenda that women think of to integrate as part of the human security agenda in particular. And so regardless of the religion, Muslims also have kind of a need to be inventive, for that, but it’s, um, I think there is a principle in mediation. You have to talk to everyone; maybe not you, necessarily, because maybe your government doesn’t want you to talk with terrorists, you have to talk to everyone, you have to listen to everyone, and involve every single person that has an impact on the outcome of the negotiation. Because not everyone who is sitting at the table is the right stakeholder. There are plenty behind that are pulling strings, that maybe have much more influence. And women, particularly in matriarchal societies have influence.  I can go on and on, and demystify this statement.

Journal: Does the rise of ISIS in Iraq represent a failure in post conflict reconstruction, in your view? What do feel the international community’s response should be towards the so called “Islamic State?”

Mahmoud: ISIL is the result of, it’s a malignancy. It is the result of past misguided policies at the national and international level. It’s the result of policies that excluded people. That demeaned people, that humiliated people. One of the fundamental needs of human beings is the need to belong to someplace, somewhere: a family, a clan, whatever.  If you are excluded, you are going to find the belonging wherever you can, however distasteful it is, and unprintable it may be. So that’s the first point: the politics of exclusion is at the root; exclusionary governance is at the root of many of the ills our societies are feeling. Many of these leaders have been humiliated in chains. They have seen their parents raped, kicked. Older tribal people tortured. You’re familiar. Whether in Iraqi chains under Saddam or other chains. The Abu Grahib is the other example. And so, the Sunni’s have been excluded. So when ISIL and Iraq…that’s another thing, that invasion of Iraq in 2003, in the pursuit of some illusory goal. So we need to understand why we have ISIL, is the first thing. We should ask the dispassionate question and understand why. That doesn’t mean to justify, not at all, just to understand. Nothing justifies what they do, but to understand.

And so, once you understand and diagnose the problem, that will help you with a solution. So far, the solution, the default solution, has been military. Has been coercive; sanctions. You can kill terrorists, but you aren’t going to kill the ism in terrorism.  Because they have support in the community. Because they have means to sustain it, because they are savvy in recruiting people. You have to address all the other factors that make them self-sustainable. How can you deal with ISIS and have not stabilized Libya? How can you deal with ISIL when the International Community supports dictators and an (alternative?) regime that continues to exclude people? There is no hope. How could you do that? They will always find a cesspool on which to draw. Using violence to contain violence is a non-starter. What happens is, when you use military means you justify violence in the pursuit of peace. You legitimize the use of violence in the pursuit of peace. Just like they are doing, they are using religion to legitimize their brutality. Same thing. It’s not a good starting point. So you have to look at the drivers that sustain this movement. Then you have to deal with it in a comprehensive and complementary manner. Obviously there is a recognition that use of force alone is not sufficient. People understand that. But, between understanding and doing, the rest is much more complicated. Here there is a role for women. Women are the victim. At least primary, in this conflict, women are negotiating local ceasefires. Women are providing humanitarian assistance. They are also being integrated to be warriors and terrorists themselves and they blow themselves up, particularly Syria. Women are bringing medicine. Women are negotiating. And so there are various ways of dealing with this phenomenon. Education. When you want to counter extremism, you start with the mind, you start with the heart. You start with the family. And who is in the family? Who is dealing and managing the family in the absence of the male that has been killed, or who is a baker in the morning and a terrorist in the nighttime? So revisit education, revisit health, revisit women being in the center.

Journal: What lessons would you like to impart on our readers about what we can learn about conflict situations, in hopes of preventing future conflict?

Mahmoud: First thing to do is study the factors which are associated with peaceful society, don’t start with conflict. In other words, what makes me healthy? That’s the starting point. I don’t have to wait to worry about my health when I have a cold or when I have a finger that is broken or an accident. In order to fix broken societies you have to study “how did this society, before it was broken, keep the peace?” Depending on the society, but usually, it is basically three fundamental things: freedom from fear, freedom from want, and freedom to enjoy your human rights. It’s basically security, jobs, justice, and voice.  So if these elements are there, yes negotiations are important, ceasefires are important, but in order for that peace to be sustainable, you have to add all these other social and economic incentives for peace. So that’s the first lesson. Second lesson is, you are a global citizen. In other words, what happens in the most remote part of Africa is going to affect you. Everything is interconnected in this wild world. Whether it is cyberspace or Ebola. Everything is interconnected, so you cannot be indifferent. By necessity you are a global citizen. So the study of Diplomacy and International Relations is very important to understand the world because it’s not just “out there,” it’s in here. How are you going to “act locally,” so you can be a global citizen? In order to be a global citizen you can’t just pack up and say “I’m going to volunteer, I’m going to do something about it.” Do your homework before you jump. Again, harking back to what we said earlier. Study the context so you don’t do harm either to yourself or those you’re planning to help. That’s the second lesson. Three is be inclusive. In everything you do, you’d be surprised the most insignificant entity could be of help, particularly in embarking a country you don’t know. Last but not least, listen. Listen with intent. Without prejudice. Because, we come with filters. And we see the realities as our cultures dictate, our policies dictates, our mandates dictate. And you are entering into a context with power asymmetry; that person needs you more than you need him so he’s going to listen to whatever you tell him. If you put yourself as the describer of the problem and the proscriber of the solution, you’re going to do more harm than good, so listen. They are close to the problem, they have thought of the solution. Start there.

Journal: Thank you, we appreciate your time.

[*] Dr. Youssef Mahmoud is the Former Special Representative for the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad. Dr. Mahmoud is also highlighted by his roles as the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Guyana, Director in the UN Department of Political Affairs and Head of the Office of the Undersecretary-Secretary-General for Political Affairs. Dr. Mahmoud received his Master of Arts in American Studies at the University of Tunis, and a Ph.D. and Master of Science in Linguistics from Georgetown University. Currently, Dr. Mahmoud serves as the Senior Advisor at the International Peace Institute (IPI), in which he leads IPI’s operational programs that support civil society leaders in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.

Paige Thompson & Danny Dubanneh conducted the interview. Sarah Ireland transcribed the interview. 

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