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Interview: Sir Stephen O’Brien

05 March 2019 by Sonia Sharma

Interview: Sir Stephen O’Brien

The former Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations, Sir Stephen O’Brien, FCIS talks about his career to date

Sir Stephen O’Brien has a career that has spun decades, ranging from holding a post as a Member of Parliament to becoming Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations. ‘I have had an unusual series of careers. I’ve always travelled extensively and had an internationalist approach’ he says. ‘My unusual career started as a hobby as soon as I left Cambridge where I studied law, embarking on a malaria expedition. It was only at the point at which you decide if you’re going to be a lawyer or not, that I decided I really wanted to ‘go manufacturing’. I wanted to be on the other side of the table’.

Having been an advisor and not part of the risk decision, but above all not being part of the management and organisation of people is what drew him to industry where he landed a role at FTSE100 company Redland PLC. Working his way up to Head of Strategy, he was eventually appointed to be the Group Company Secretary. ‘I carried all those roles at Redland simultaneously and then also added corporate affairs and some of the relationships with the City over time, as well as some of the international operations’.

In addition to these roles, he was also a founding member of the SDP, but resigned when they tried to ally with the Liberals. He then found himself representing the people of Southwest Cheshire in the 1999 election as a Conservative. ‘It was an inner wish fulfilled, given that I never thought that I would either be or could afford to be a Member of Parliament. We were in opposition for 11 years before I became an International Development Minister in the Coalition Government of 2010, building upon the fact that I’d been campaigning on malaria control and elimination as part of a global effort for so many years’. He is now a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge where he has brought together his extensive experience to help to create the Cambridge Peace and Humanitarian Initiative.

How did you make the move to the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations?

It was simply that having been a Minister for two and a half years, I was then asked by the Prime Minister to take on the role as his Envoy to the Sahel – which straddles nine countries just south of the Sahara and slightly beyond in Africa – at a time when suddenly Mali was having a major crisis.
I was fully expecting to fight in the 2015 election, not least because my majority had been built up to 25,000 by this stage over the series of elections and I was very much looking forward to continue representing the people and this area where I had built a strong relationship with my constituents, fully recognising that I was there to serve not just those who’d voted for me but all those who’d voted very deliberately against me or not at all.

That’s the nature of being an MP. We had serious issues to continue to tackle and I was confident we would prevail in the election. That’s when David Cameron asked me to let my name go forward as the senior Briton in the UN as the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. It turned out not to be a ‘shoe-in’ appointment but a fierce competition between, initially, 15 states all putting their strongest candidates forward. Primarily, I suspect, because of my experience in public office, my internationalism and experience beyond purely politics, my own activity in malaria control and neglected tropical diseases, my commitment and part in securing the law that requires the UK to contribute 0.7% of its Gross National Income to overseas development assistance, my work in international development, as well as being an expert about many of the aspects of the 54 countries of Africa, I was asked to do the job.

With very few days left to the 2015 election, I had to give notice to my Association that I wasn’t able to be nominated to stand. They had to rush to find a successor candidate and within a couple of months I was on an aeroplane to New York.

A bit like every move I’ve made, it was done with a ‘well, I’ll give it my very best,’ but whatever experience, skills and approach I have to working, it’s the way others assess you as to whether or not they approach you to take on that kind of role.

You are an advocate for global health. According to the World Health Organisation there’s been a 29% reduction in malaria mortality rates, however it has been argued by the Gates Foundation that continued investment in innovation is needed. What are some of the challenges that you personally experienced when trying to provide solutions?

Malaria kills primarily in the high transmission area of sub-Saharan Africa. Some have argued in the past (which is probably an exaggeration) that more human beings have died of malaria than from anything else in human history.

It has always been the world’s biggest killer that is both treatable and avoidable with today’s techniques. By the time I got into Parliament and could use the platform, I set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group to get this issue to rise above party politics. I was in opposition and every time I stood up you could see the then Labour government were unhappy about a Conservative leading on the issue so they would throw some money at it each time I raised a question. We got the whole thing moving from circa £75 million worth of global spend on malaria control back in 2001-2002 to now somewhere in the region of £2.3 billion, where the death rate has come down from an estimate of between one and two million to around 470,000, all of whose lives lost are unacceptable, but it is hugely encouraging progress where we must maintain the gains and ensure we reach the unmet need so far. Once you’re a Parliamentarian – in addition to doing your work with constituents, taking shadow and governmental ministerial roles if they’re offered, and doing your very best to deliver the policy of a government – of course one still maintains campaigning interests or causes that you believe passionately about. Our problem now are these internally arising conflicts which are then not capable of resolution by the UN because the UN only has a mandate between member states. Too often the UN is precluded from getting in early to prevent conflict and too often an internal conflict is then hijacked by proxies for their own purposes, further shutting out the UN and our access to the civilian people in need. 

Even as a diplomat, there is a real opportunity to use the humanitarian imperative to speak truth to power, and there are certain issues that rise above everybody’s interests. The UN is a remarkable body that has held together for 72 years, nobody’s invented something better, it’s the highest form of world council for diplomacy.

You have argued for greater compliance and accountability under international humanitarian law. What are some of the challenges you have faced and how do you think greater accountability can be implemented moving forward?

I am as aware as anybody that a lot of these issues about law, governance and so forth concern outstanding bodies of learning, practice and professionalism, but they are all man-made so they all are capable of being deeply flawed. In the end it’s about governing expectations and behaviour.
When I was learning the law, particularly international law, we all knew it was a body of law but it wasn’t really enforceable. It was a set of concepts, ideas and expectations. There has been some progress, but the real problem has been this inability to enforce the regulation of conflict and the rights of civilians, innocent parties, and to also monitor and underpin the laws of war, rules of war, for not bombing medical facilities or routes to hospitals or making sure that innocent civilians are not caught up and that there is proportionality.

These things have been honoured more or less in the breach, particularly where the UN hasn’t been able to have any kind of oversight, and even when it has there is no appetite, and I met this frequently around the Security Council table. There was no political will, licence to operate, or legal backing to go find the evidence to make sure there was accountability or some form of transparency/process which would hold people to account. One can call for compliance with international humanitarian law, it could not be a more important principle, but the problem is there is no current will to see that
complied with.

At the criminal level we can see to some degree – whether it’s chemical weapons or even nuclear – there is an expectation that tribunals can be brought to bear to embarrass but not enforce other than through normally rather ineffective sanctions on leaders and individuals. Even in the International Criminal Court when it comes to individuals doing very bad things, they’ve always struggled to both arraign and bring people to justice.

There has been too much humanitarian suffering, all of which is completely avoidable if we had some form of either check upon the conflict in the first place, or some form of enforceability and accountability which would be the most effective deterrent for others who wish to trample all over individuals and innocent civilian rights.

That has been my anxiety. It’s been absolutely key to me that we don’t as yet have an effective mechanism of enforceability and accountability.

There is another aspect to this which is when you’re not in conflict but you’re also not just dealing with natural disaster. It goes back to the point of ‘what do we mean by fiduciary responsibility’? When you go and sit as a director on a corporate board, it means that you come together as one for a higher purpose, you have a responsibility to report, and you have a responsibility to deliver in companies. Yes there are stakeholders and huge variables, but, in the end, the bottom line is a pretty single measure.

Dare I mention the parallel with what we’re having to go through with Brexit at the moment? Where is that fiduciary duty of all MPs today? You are not a delegate but required to exercise your judgment in the highest common cause.

These are massive governance issues and there is a legitimacy of engagement and feeling that you as an individual are capable of influencing this, yet you rely upon the responsibility of people who understand what governance is about.

In companies there is limited capital and you have to allocate it. You have expectations of how you predict customers are going to produce revenues. Governance is not successful just by following the rules as we get more and more specificity, transparency, report writing and expectation of demonstrating it, and in the end it’s not a tick box.

It is ultimately not a substitute for the most precious thing we have – which is the exercise of wise judgement on issues – and the more we can make that collective through fiduciary understanding and capacity, the better.

Do you have any confidence going forward that there will be change?

Will there be greater accountability in future framework or are we at a standstill?


It’s partly why I’m really glad to have this opportunity to be in Cambridge at the moment because I think so much more work has got to be done to try and find where those great possibilities are. It comes down to political will, the political reality and what people are prepared to do. It is difficult at the moment.

I have to say on the negative side of the equation, I’m saddened that despite all the outstanding work of the UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura who’s just stepped down after four years, who tried so hard to bring parties together to try and find a way to get peace in Syria, that the UN is now not leading the effort. It would appear that over 500,000 people have died. Half a million people, it’s terrifying. 

If we’re looking forward, you’ve now got over four million who are opposed to Assad, both fighters and their families, and those who are innocent civilians are now corralled into Idlib. You’ve got about 90,000 stuck on the southern berm with Jordan where they can’t move in either direction. I am really concerned about the people in Idlib, and where is the peace process at the moment? It’s in the hands of the Russians, the Iranians and the Syrians. It’s not in the hands of the UN.

There has been a bypassing de facto of the international architecture and structure which is intended to bring peace and security on our planet, so I am saddened by that because that’s a
bad development.

On the other hand, I am encouraged that other initiatives are taking some root, albeit not necessarily fundamentally from the UN, but at least with the UN’s blessing.

My greatest fear is that we may have to relearn the lessons of history and I think the world can’t afford that. We’ve got the added exacerbation and challenge from resource depletion, global health challenges, exacerbation of climate change, potential real restrictions on access to potable water which could lead to very serious conflicts, and the growth in populations who have the least income to be able to generate sufficient prosperity not to remain dependent and for their esteem to be under attack. They continue to be nursery beds for people of malign intent who wish to contest for power without the legitimacy of democratic endorsement.

As I paint that picture there’s a lot to be worried about, but there are points of hope. We need to be honest with ourselves that our confidence as prosperous economies and people in relatively stable nations for generations who have had the privilege of not suddenly having to lay down all of our plans to go and fight for our freedom or our defence of Queen and country is now at breaking point. But hope comes from our values and also in taking care to preserve and wisely adapt the precious institutions which have underpinned our security and our hope.

Are there any changes that you would make which would enable the UN to be more effective in its functions now or in the future?

The UN is unquestionably well founded upon its Charter and the growth of its experience as the large, global, senior diplomatic body. Now with 193 member states and about four observers, it is the nature of it that it needs to be legitimate in the eyes of each of those member states. They all have a vote in the General Assembly. It is, of course, difficult to see how you would reform or find the motive for reform to take away from the architecture of the post-Second World War settlement.

It is difficult, because you have to be totally objective, independent and speak truth to power and no country likes to have its human rights questioned. It is a very difficult role, and one which, internationally, is always under pressure.

There are too many proxies and vetoes taking place, which disable the UN to thwart some of the worst behaviours around the world. But where the Secretariat is allowed to take initiative, we’ve had good success on climate change. The previous Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, deserves a huge amount of praise and credit for the way he convened that and secured agreement, albeit we need everybody to sign up.

The development agenda, in effect, was where we would transfer from the rich fiscal nations to the less rich, even those who are very, very poor, and over time, that would increase development in those countries, which will give enough of those populations a stake in the ground. This will not only enable them to be survivors and prosperous, but would mean there would be less chance for people of malign intent to exploit them, discriminate against them, or for those who would try to abuse – including those abusing religious confession – to try and rally people behind their fighting causes.
There is no question that at the top level the UN has probably spread itself over far too many activities. If you hunker down to its primary pillars, it should be about peace and prosperity, the custodianship and safeguarding of our world, the interrelationship between natural resource and the human being, good economic and social development, humanitarian and emergency response, protection, peace-keeping and the promotion of individual rights, personified by, ‘We the peoples...’, in each individual, family and community unit.

There is a huge cost attached to doing too many things. Whilst many people are concerned about the rhetoric coming out of the current US administration, it has acknowledged that not only does the United States give the base home to the UN in New York but the UN is funded by the taxpayers of the rich countries of the world, especially the US. Therefore, when you’re using public money it is always right to question if it is being used well and to the best possible effect.


We have to remember that the US is currently contributing around 28% of the total funding of the UN and so there is a big question as to how well that money is being deployed. 

I think there’s a big challenge for the UN to re-justify a lot of its activities, but not to distort that by somehow thinking America is asking the wrong questions. As the main paymaster it is entitled to ask about the use of the money.

The UK is also a significant contributor to the UN. The EU is not a member state, it’s an observer, which carries some frustrations for the EU. France is another permanent council member of the Security Council. That is an issue for us – as we come out of the EU – to how we ensure best use of our permanent seat, given that France will be able to claim it represents the body of European countries, which we’ve been sharing with them until now.

I think there is a real opportunity to influence world mechanisms for better peaceful and earlier intervention, particularly on internal matters, and to try and find a route through this UN mandate that precludes the UN from interfering in the internal affairs of another state unless you’re invited in.
Finally, I would certainly want to see a lot more reform in terms of the structures. I was taken by surprise that the culture within the UN was, if you are somebody who is hungry and eager to make change, the appetite for that being received within the UN is extraordinarily limited because anybody who is in a leadership position is always there for a temporary period, compared to the long-termers within the UN. They would want to resist seeing their expectations of a neat career path and protection of their terms and conditions being disturbed.

That’s normal human reaction and behaviour, but there is a need for that resistance to be pulled apart. There’s been some effort, but some of the designs that were in place have not been supported by the General Assembly and there is a compromise set of reforms going through today.

Could you talk us through the concept of the Cambridge Peace and Humanitarian Initiative? How was this brought to fruition and what are the aims of the centre?

The anxiety across our current generations for there to be a better way of securing a more peaceful world for preventing and resolving conflicts early and before they re-arise, and for recognising – particularly in our digital, 24/7, social media exposed world – that all decision-making is instant and assumed to be received in a culture of a lack of respect for those who carry responsibility in leadership. There is an absence of a range of flexible, available tools, where senior decision makers – be they political or in the international, multilateral institutions, in the domestic democratic or, indeed, nondemocratic institutions of states – are determining what happens which affects us all.
At the moment, those of us who have had the enormous fulfilment and privilege of occupying positions of senior decision-making, will very often have a paper or a meeting served up to you where a decision has got to be made. A lot of people are waiting and dependent upon that decision, as to how you deploy money, assets, skills, people, reach, access and political capital. How do you deploy that in the interest of the global community for a better and peaceful world? The anxiety is that, very often, at the point of decision, you haven’t got everything you need to make the very best decision, but you still have to make a decision nonetheless. So there is an absence of a further toolkit available.

Civil servants are amazing at producing the options and doing an analysis, and they are very sensitive to – in a democratic world or in the UN – to keeping you safe. Sometimes, the decisions you have to make are risky and will cause offence to some community or, particular interest somewhere. Again, it’s judgment as to when you are going to make a better impact than a negative impact.
The Cambridge Peace and Humanitarian Initiative, is explicitly to draw together, on a cross-disciplinary basis, the amazing expertise, which undoubtedly I know exists, but in quite a series of chimney stacks within the Cambridge academic community, which have come about for all the reasons we understand such as academic brilliance, of the competition for research funding, and for the specificity of teaching courses and what people want to learn.


This needs to have horizontal cross-fertilisation, so that when you have a short time frame and you’re making a decision, senior practitioners can pick up the phone for a one-stop shop of advice, and draw upon the amazing advice, evidence, judgment and research from Cambridge. The World Humanitarian Summit was the first in 71 years of the UN’s history to focus on humanitarian affairs. We came up with the agenda for humanity and whilst there are five principles and 24 commitments, the real issue was to prevent and resolve conflict.

That is what is driving humanitarian need, security and the angst of our current generation. This is in peril at putting at risk all of the things that we have worked so hard to create, which is a world where people will have a chance to be able to live their hopes in the secure knowledge that they’re likely to survive, provide for their families, and have self-esteem from knowing that they are being
useful within the world. 

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