New British U.N. Ambassador Discusses Priorities

Sir John Sawers is Britain's new ambassador to the United Nations. Sawers talks with Robert Siegel about what's going on at the U.N. and what his priorities are for the Middle East.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, Sir John Sawers, who is Britain's new ambassador to the United Nations. Among the many other experiences, Sir John was Tony Blair's man in Baghdad in 2003 where he made some scathing private observations about the American occupation authorities. He's also been a diplomat in Yemen and Syria and Britain's ambassador to Egypt. Now at the U.N. Welcome to the program.

Ambassador SIR JOHN SAWERS (British Ambassador to the U.N.): Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: First, Iraq. Britain's foreign secretary and defense secretary write about the pullback from Basra in today's Washington Post and they put the question - the question some people have asked us is have British forces failed in Basra? The answer is no. On the other hand, we've heard from the Americans such as Gen. Jack Keane, the retired general, that as the Brits started to reduce their forces, Shia militias started to flex their muscles, and what was once a relatively stable situation is now deteriorating. Is it deteriorating?

Ambassador SAWERS: The situation is not as we would like it to be in Basra and that applies to the situation in Iraq as a whole. We have had difficulty maintaining the levels of security that we would have liked to - in Basra, there's no denying that. But nonetheless, our strategic goal has been to help establish institutions in southern Iraq, the police, the army and so on, so that they are able to take over responsibility for security in the south.

Three provinces in the south are now under the effective security control of Iraqi forces. The fourth, the province of Basra itself, remains under British responsibility, but it is our goal when these conditions arise to be able to hand that over to the Iraqis. I don't think that's too far off, but a decision we made obviously on the advice of militia commanders and with in consultation with American allies.

SIEGEL: But does handing it over to the Iraqis, in this case, is it likely to mean handing it over to the authority of local militias as opposed to a respected and effective central government?

Ambassador SAWERS: It certainly does not mean handing it over to the authority of local militias. It means the Iraqi police, the Iraqi army having the lead responsibility and we will be there in support as necessary.

SIEGEL: Would you expect there to be a fratricidal conflict between different Shiite militias taking place even as the British move out of Basra?

Ambassador SAWERS: I think you exaggerated. I don't think it will be quite as you describe. There is nonetheless the rivalry between different Shia factions and it's very - it's a great pity that it's turned into a sort of armed rivalry that we've seen between the Sadr's militia and some of the other militias on the streets. But our interest is to build up the local authorities, the local police and army and I think we're making some progress in doing that.

SIEGEL: Is it fair to say that the underlying point animating British policy in Iraq is that the British public regardless of what generals or diplomats say, the British public simply wants no more of this war in Iraq?

Ambassador SAWERS: Well, I'm not sure that's an accurate description actually. Yes, there has been deep concern about the level of fatalities amongst our own forces as has been in this country about American losses. But I think there's an understanding that first of all, Iraq is vastly better place without Saddam Hussein and his henchmen. And secondly, we cannot forget our responsibilities in Iraq. There is not a pressure in British government for us to cut and run. There's no suggestion of that. What there is concern for is that we should be able to continue the process progressively handing over security responsibilities. We will do that responsibly and in close consultation with our American allies over this.

SIEGEL: Moving onto the situation in Darfur.

Ambassador SAWERS: Yeah.

SIEGEL: What encouragement, if any, do you take from the mix of sanctions and diplomacy to date in stopping the genocide in Darfur, and how important is Chinese influence over the Sudanese government, obviously(ph)?

Ambassador SAWERS: Well, I think we have made quite a bit of progress. The appalling killings that we saw in Darfur between 2003 and 2005 led to the most dreadful suffering displacements of something like two million people. I saw it for myself when I was in Darfur a few months back. And I think the international pressure has had an effect. It hasn't by any means solved the problem. I think there is greater commonality internationally now. And everybody knows that if those responsible in Khartoum do not face up to their responsibilities, they will face further sanctions. We don't want to go down that route unless we have to, but we are fully prepared to.

SIEGEL: And that's (unintelligible) as saying if you conduct one more genocidal murderous campaign in this distance province, there are going to be more sanctions. You're describing a success - couldn't one look at what's happened and say this is a failure of the international community?

Ambassador SAWERS: I - I think you have to be a little bit careful there, Robert. First of all, there were some terrible rates of killings there a few years ago. There was no way that the situation can be solved, but the scale of the government-sponsored activities is much less than it was two or three years ago. Now that's not a solution, but I don't think you can say that the situation now is as awful and with the levels of killings that it was a few years ago, but it is not the way you characterized it.

We have supported a force of some 17,000 international troops to go into Darfur under U.N. command. There is a massive humanitarian operation underway and there's the start of a political process. I think that's steps in the right direction. I think the concerted international pressure, which is being led in many ways by public opinion in Europe, in America and in other countries, that the terrible suffering of the Muslim population of Darfur, much of it inflicted because of the orchestrated activities of their own government in Khartoum. That has to come to an end. I think we're making progress on that - in that direction.

SIEGEL: Mr. John Sawers, new ambassador from Britain to the United Nations, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. SAWERS: Thank you, Robert.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.