Gabon’s UN ambassador hopes Russia may return to resolution linking climate change to terrorism

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Tuesday, 11 January 2022 18:31, updated on Tuesday, 20 September 2022 17:00

Gabon's UN envoy Michel Xavier Biang

In a wide-ranging interview with The Africa Report, Gabon's United Nations (UN) envoy Michel Xavier Biang lays out his country's priorities as it begins its two-year stint as one of two African states joining the UN Security Council (UNSC) this month.

TAR: This is Gabon’s fourth time on the Security Council. What are your priorities this time around?

Michel Xavier Biang: We come to the UNSC with a regional mandate for Africa, as our candidacy was endorsed by the African Union (AU). So, our priority is to echo the narrative of the AU in terms of peace and security.

On this issue, it’s important to highlight that the AU has a well-known road map, entitled Silencing the Guns. This vast programme combines a holistic approach to peacemaking, from early warnings to prevention and peacekeeping. It encompasses addressing the root causes of conflict, including development and climate change.

Beyond the African mandate, we have national priorities leading our commitment and permanent plea for peace and security. Among them, we are convinced that climate change is tightly linked to insecurity, as it’s the main source of food insecurity, as a source of migration and a source of terrorism. And this triple insecurity fuels global instability. Therefore, we recommend that climate change be addressed as a global threat on all tribunes dedicated to advocating for peace and security.

We also have full conviction that women have a key role to play in the peace and security process. For this reason, we think that it’s important to highlight their resilience in zones of conflict as well as their capacities as leaders and peace drivers.

It’s been more than a decade since Gabon last sat on the council in 2010-2011. What’s different this time around?

The [Covid] pandemic has completely changed our social habits. One of the first lessons that we can draw from this pandemic is that a threat to one of us is a threat to everyone […]. Today [in the US], we’re talking a second or third booster shot after two or three doses, while in most African countries we can’t even get the first dose. Vaccines must be accessible.

And patent holders should lift their rights so generics can be made available for every country. I don’t think we can just look at the pandemic from a business perspective. We need a dose of humanity to see that the destiny of the whole planet depends on it. We can’t address such a different context with the tool of the past decades. The new challenges require more audacity and more solidarity and more humanity.

[On the question of security,] in 2010 we launched a debate in the council on the issue of small arms, which are the cause of innumerable conflicts in Africa. Today we want to follow up on this question and make our own the key role of women in peace and security processes, as well as the issue of states plagued by armed groups, notably in the Central Africa region and the Sahel. We hope to raise these issues during our presidency of the council in October.

The international context has profoundly changed. And our instruments to deal with the world must be reformed, including the UN Security Council.

On that note, Senegal’s President Macky Sall and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa denounced the “unfair” absence of a permanent African member on the UN Security Council during the latter’s visit to Senegal in December. What is the outlook for progress on this front?

More than ever, the UN must reflect the diversity of the international community. And Africa must take its rightful place, in line with the Ezulwini Consensus and the Sirte Declaration [calling for Africa to get two permanent seats with veto power and five non-permanent seats in the council].

We’ve been talking about this for years. We think it’s time to move from words to action and have more formal negotiations based on a text. The whole of Africa is backing the C10 [Committee of 10 African countries led by Sierra Leone tasked with Security Council reform] in this legitimate claim.

Both of the new African members on the council, Gabon and Ghana, are located on the Gulf of Guinea. What is Gabon’s stance on the proposed UN resolution on piracy being put forward by Ghana and Norway?

We strongly support this initiative. We believe this is a crucial question for the Gulf of Guinea, whose strategic character is well-known as a maritime route and world energy reserve.

We’ve seen that the curse of piracy has progressively moved from the Gulf of Aden to the Gulf of Guinea, which has disrupted navigation and impacted the economic viability of many countries along the gulf. Gabon, being at the heart of the Gulf of Guinea, is particularly concerned by its security.

Gabon is a leader on climate change, having helmed the African Group of Negotiators on Climate Change at the COP 26 summit while also being the first African nation to be paid to protect its rainforest through the UN-backed Central African Forest Initiative. What more can you tell us about your goals in this regard?

Gabon plays a central role in the dynamic around the fight against climate change in Africa. President Ali Bongo Ondimba is particularly engaged on the issue. And our commitment is recognised by most of our African peers. This gives us great responsibility as a driver on the issue in international fora, and we believe the Security Council is an ideal forum to amplify our plea for the recognition of the link between climate change and security.

In that regard, what do you make of Russia’s veto last month of a resolution sponsored by Niger and Ireland that sought to link climate change to terrorism in the Sahel and beyond?

We regret that this initiative didn’t pass. But this gives or more motivation to continue our advocacy and raise awareness on this issue. The more we talk about it, the better its chances. We need to have collective action on the ground. This sort of question needs to be discussed, tirelessly. We’ll seize every opportunity to address it during our mandate in the Security Council.

Objections from some member states are just a snapshot in time. We must continue to work with all members on the obvious nexus between the arc of aridity and climate change and the arc of terrorism, violence and war. After all, the other great power just a few years ago was skeptical about climate change.

Another bone of contention are the objections from the United States and the United Kingdom regarding the use of UN-assessed contributions to support the peacekeeping efforts of the G5 Sahel, a group of countries made up of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The question of the Sahel is crucial for us, and we will raise our voice on the importance of having the international community support the Sahel in its fight against terrorism and violent extremism. We believe that regional initiatives, such as the G5 Sahel, should be strongly supported and made operational with logistical supply and predictable financial support commensurate with the challenge facing the region.

Another problematic subject is the UN’s decision in September to send home all 450 Gabonese troops from its peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic (CAR) following allegations that a handful of soldiers sexually abused five girls. What is the status of Gabon’s inquiry into the matter and how is it affecting relations with the UN system?

Last month we sent a delegation led by our minister of defence to meet with the UN secretary general and most members of the Security Council to share our perspective on this issue. Gabon is committed to zero tolerance in terms of sexual abuse. We are a country where women are sacred, where the leaders of three of the top four government institutions – the prime minister, the president of parliament and the president of the supreme court – are women. The image reflected by the allegations on our soldiers is shocking and incompatible with our values.

That’s why we immediately sent an investigative team on the ground, which gathered solid evidence raising serious doubts about many pending allegations. Beyond this finding, we don’t understand the logic of collective punishment for allegations targeting a few individuals.

Today, we are deploying a joint investigation team with the UN on the same facts on which a hasty decision has been taken, staining the reputation of our contribution. Can you imagine? And what will happen if the investigation concludes that the allegations were false? We think that what was done to Gabon would not have been done to a country situated somewhere else on the planet.

Do you hope to send the Gabonese contingent back to CAR, the only mission with a Gabonese troop presence?

If we’re asked to go back, we have an unwavering commitment to contribute to international peace and security. President Bongo is dedicated to the cause of peace. CAR is a country where we have expressed great solidarity. We share a community of free circulation of goods and people [the Communauté Économique des États de l’Afrique Centrale]. We have a linked destiny with the CAR. We cannot be indifferent to their threats and security challenges.

What do you want the UN to do now?

We have many channels and possibilities to interact with the UN. We will use them according to the needs and the opportunities.

Why does Gabon think the UN took the decision it did?

CAR is a country where numerous geopolitical ambitions cross paths. There’s also the extreme mobility of armed groups, with their support and rear bases in the sub-region. I think all these factors play a role in blurring perceptions, and I think our country fell victim to judgments that do not reflect our contribution to peace and stability in CAR.

We played a key role within the Mission Multidimensionnelle Intégrée des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Centrafrique, in terms of competence and efficiency our soldiers are qualified and high appreciated. We were really surprised to hear that such well-reputed good peacekeepers were thrown into doubt in a snap. It’s very troubling and we are trying to figure out why.

It sounds like you’re suggesting Gabon may have rubbed someone the wrong way?

We are still trying to understand what happened.

Let’s go back to Gabon’s advocacy for women on the council. That’s also a priority for Norway during its presidency this month. What are some of the things you are looking at?

We’re working with the Norwegians, with whom we share the same advocacy goals. We think it’s important to recognise that women play a key role in peace processes. That their numbers must increase in decision-making circles. That the more women there are in governing bodies, the higher the prospects for peace. That the more women are involved in peacekeeping operations, the more effective and relevant they will be. That the more autonomous women will be, the more stable and safer the world will be.

We also want to zoom in on the protection of children in conflict. They often pay a huge price on the battlefield for adults’ wickedness.

Do you have any final words?

Gabon is strongly committed to peace for women’s empowerment and climate security. We will amplify this international plea and give resonance for African solutions to African problems.

We believe in regional diplomacy and cooperation because they [regional groups] have the advantage of being close to crisis zones. And we encourage the UN to continue developing a close partnership with regional organisations, notably the AU, and support their initiatives, including logistical and financial support.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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