Fatemeh Ziai: On the Crucial Role of Peacekeeping

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Fatemeh Ziai.

Fatemeh Ziai is Chief of Staff of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Field Support at the United Nations, based at the organization’s headquarters in New York City. Previously she served as Chief of Staff to the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General. She has also held a number of other leadership positions at the Organization, both at Headquarters and in field missions, including in Political Affairs, Peacekeeping Training and Human Resources.

From November 2001 — July 2002, she was a member of the UN team at the Bonn Peace Talks and helped set up the UN Mission that followed in Afghanistan. She also served as a Legal Adviser to the UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Prior to joining the United Nations, she served as Counsel at Human Rights Watch from 1993–1996, and was an attorney at Clearly, Gottlieb, Steen and Hamilton from1990–1993. She received her BA from Brown University (1986) and her JD from Harvard Law School (1990).

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

I grew up in Iran until age 13. We moved to the US one year before the revolution. We are a family of four girls and we are very tight knit. We were one those families where we were encouraged to pursue whatever career we wanted, as long as we became doctors! But I must say that my parents came around, and all four of us ended up following our interests, with their full support. I studied history and then law, and then briefly worked on Wall Street. I realized fairly quickly that this was not the right fit — I was well paid but did not feel fulfilled. I then got a fellowship at Human Rights Watch and that literally changed my life — I had found the work that I loved! A few years later I joined the UN, where I have been working for the past 21 years.

Has there been a particular person, place or event that you count among your key influences to date?

My parents, because their love and support has always made me feel protected and given me self-confidence. I am also grateful that they raised me to be proud of my Iranian heritage, which is a big part of who I am.

What are some of the highlights of working with the peacekeeping operations?

I am now working at UN Headquarters in New York, so we deal more with the inter-governmental machinery — the Security Council, the General Assembly — i.e. the Member States who pass the resolutions authorizing our operations and who pay the bills. In the field, the mandates we are given are very ambitious and we work in difficult, and often hostile and dangerous environments. Often, we are only able to make incremental improvements. Our biggest achievements are those that stop even worse things from happening: we protect civilians from attack, or we provide military escort so humanitarians can deliver food to hard-to-reach areas. In these terrible environments this can make a huge difference for the population, but it’s difficult because the outside world asks, “Why can’t the UN just go in and “fix” the problems?”

What would you say is the most challenging aspect of being a female peacekeeper?

Our peacekeeping operations tend to be very male-dominated. At senior levels there are few women, even at Headquarters. We also have a large number of uniformed personnel — military and police — and that culture can be especially difficult for women. I find it interesting when men walk into a room or sit at a conference table at the UN and don’t even notice that it’s predominantly male, while women are acutely aware of this every time they take a seat at that table. The UN stands for equality, so we have to practice what we preach. And if want to attract and retain more women, we have to make peacekeeping a more welcoming and empowering environment for women.

What do you feel is the greatest impact of more women as peacekeepers?

Our experience shows, unequivocally, that women can be more effective than men vis-a-vis the communities we serve, especially vulnerable populations. In the conflict and post-conflict environments in which we work there often is, or has been, sexual and gender-based violence — assault, rape, sexual slavery, and so on. At a minimum there has been loss, displacement, and great suffering. This is obviously highly traumatic and survivors and their families are usually not trusting. We find that they are more likely to cooperate with and open up to women. So having women among the troops that are patrolling the streets, working as human rights officers investigating abuses or as civil affairs officers working with local communities, can make a huge difference in how willing people are to trust and want to work with us.

Where would you like to see the relationship between women and peacekeeping go? How would you like to see women’s participation in this field progress?

We really need to improve the gender balance in peacekeeping but it’s tricky. Many of our operations are in places where you cannot take your family, and that’s a problem for many women. Not to mention that the environment and living conditions can be really challenging. Also, in some fields — logistics, security, military and police — the imbalance reflects the reality that women tend to be under-represented in these fields. At the same time, we know that there are “old boys networks” at play that can make it harder for women to get these positions than men. So we have to tackle the problem on both fronts — addressing the systemic issues that limit the number of women who enter these fields globally, but also the bias and discrimination that often occur during selection.

Peacekeeping is one of the most effective tools available to the United Nations in the promotion and maintenance of international peace and security. Yet peacekeeping faces several challenges that undermine its ability to deliver on its mandates. Could you tell us how to tackle those?

Our challenges are great. Our annual budget is just over $7 billion, but it keeps shrinking, while our mandates keep growing. We rotate around 100,000 troops through UN Peacekeeping a year, and yet we don’t have our own army. We receive these personnel from Member States, so they come with varying levels of training and equipment. And we work in hostile environments where our peacekeepers have increasingly come under attack — so casualties and fatalities are a real concern. The Secretary-General has launched a reform effort that is aimed at tackling these problems, through more realistic mandates, more sustainable funding, better training and equipment, and improved security. But most important, it is about having the Member States of the UN renew their commitment to peacekeeping and work with us, in partnership, to bring about these changes.

What achievement are you the proudest of?

My son, Ali. I am proud that he is kind, socially conscious, and has a great sense of humor!

Secretary-General António Guterres has proposed reforms in the United Nations peace and security architecture. Can you tell us what the shortcomings of the existing system are? What recommendations for change are offered by experts?

Last year the Secretary-General put forward a series of transformative proposals for UN reform and these were adopted by the General Assembly. They will take effect on January 1st2019. Basically, the Organization will be much more decentralized when it comes to administrative and management issues. On the peace and security side, there will be structural changes aimed at breaking down some of the silos that currently exist between the political, peacekeeping and peacebuilding departments. The goal is to work in a much more integrated way.

How would you describe your overall experience working at the United Nations? Is there one particular experience/memory you would like to share with our readers?

I have been so fortunate in the opportunities I have had in my career. I have worked on many challenging but really rewarding issues. My work in the field — in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Lebanon — has been especially meaningful. Of course the UN can be frustrating as well, because it is a large bureaucracy, and it is an organization of Member States, so it is deeply political. But I have incredibly hardworking and committed colleagues and it is rewarding working with likeminded people who are all trying to do their part.

I think one UN experience of mine that stands out was being part of the UN team that helped negotiate the Afghanistan peace agreement right after 9/11. We were practically locked up in a castle in Germany until the parties could agree on a solution! I worked with Lakhdar Brahimi, who is a great negotiator and brilliant mind.

Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does being an Iranian-American mean to you?

I remember that when we first moved to the United States, people thought Iranians were exotic and interesting. A year later, after the revolution and hostage crisis, everything changed, and being Iranian was seen as threatening. Of course this was difficult as a teenager, but because I had actually grown up in Iran, I had a very strong sense of identity. I think this gave me the strength to not respond to this fear and hostility by hiding who I was. Interestingly, I continued to see myself as a “foreigner” throughout that period and for many years after that. Even after I became a US citizen it took some time to fully embrace the “Iranian-American” label and internalize the fact that we are immigrants — this is now our country too. We have rights, but also the duty to speak up for the things that matter.