Interview with Eric Morris, IPS Practitioner-in-Residence
Eric Morris most recently served as the UN Recovery Coordinator for Aceh and Nias following the Indian Ocean tsunami of December, 2004. He headed the New York Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 2002 to 2005. In 2000-01 he served simultaneously as Special Envoy in the Balkans of the High Commissioner for Refugees and as UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Kosovo. In 1998-99 he was Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General for the UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, focusing on police and judicial reform issues. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell University, an MA from Yale University, and a BA from Baylor University.
What led you down this career path?
My graduate work at both Yale and Cornell was focused on the politics of Southeast Asia. I was living in Aceh, Indonesia, studying the marginalized population there for my dissertation, when I became familiar with the United Nations organization dealing with refugees and displaced persons, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). After earning my Ph.D., I realized that even though I had benefited immensely from academics, I wanted to be more involved in direct action in the field.
In your view, what is one of the most pressing concerns in the study of international policy?
An ongoing dilemma that’s always important to consider is the question of the degree to which humanitarian crises engage us in international security issues. Having stepped out of UN operations three times now (sabbaticals at MIT and Princeton and now at Stanford), I see two main schools of thought on this: what I term the moral obligation response -- those who make the case that when state failure leads to human atrocities, we have a moral obligation to respond -- and the realists, who are more guarded in their thinking and believe that national interests are only marginally concerned with humanitarian crises. It’s not a question that is easily resolved.
Were there aspects of your work that you found frustrating and how did you deal with that?
The UN is a complex bureaucracy and, for the most part, preoccupied by process. As long as the processes seem to work, then most people think that’s okay. The frustration this gives rise to is that these processes many times serve to hinder any sort of quick response when dealing with humanitarian crises or peacekeeping operations. The challenge then, is to figure out how to get around the system, and that’s something that I enjoy doing -- getting around the system.
Also, in both humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, numerous actors need to come together and the question then becomes whether the UN can coordinate (really another process) all the different actors. As Special Envoy for Kosovo (2000-01) and UN Recovery Coordinator in Indonesia (2004-05), there was a need for coherence and unity in our response to these disasters, which was extremely difficult to achieve. In retrospect, I can see that our efforts were hampered by the lack of a coherent and unified response.
Although these can sometimes be overwhelming frustrations, what I ultimately want to stress is that the rewards far outweigh them. In the end, you get a tangible sense that something good has been accomplished.
Please tell us about some of the successes in your field of work.
There are three different ‘success stories’ that come to mind; the first two involve the Balkans and I consider both to be successes. The third is quite different in that I consider it both a success and a failure.
In 1992, the citizens of Sarajevo were under siege and surrounded by Serb forces. The UN Security Council came together and determined that there should be an airlift operation to get food and medicine to the people of Sarajevo. The High Commissioner at the time, Sadako Ogata, volunteered UNHCR to lead the airlift, a massive operation that was totally beyond UNHCR’s previous experience. I was asked by Ogata to take charge of this mission and we devised a plan that required the commitment of a number of air forces (eventually totaling 20 different air forces) to air drop supplies provided by the UN, the use of an airport (in Zagreb), and military officers (provided by the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, and Italy) to help set up and run the AirOps Center. At the time, I kept thinking to myself that this was a “humanitarian fig leaf” and that the UN wouldn’t be able to do anything. After a few weeks of operation, the Bosnian president was furious that we were providing food and not arms. At that time, I met with UN staff as well as military and air force personnel twice a day and someone asked me how much longer this would last. I responded that it would probably last another 2-3 weeks and in fact, it went on for about 3 ½ years! While the airlift didn’t break the siege, it put a significant dent to it and if Sarajevo had been lost, it would have changed the situation in the Balkans for the worse.
While I was Special Envoy for the Balkans in 2001, there were two Albanian rebellions, one in Serbia and the other in Macedonia. Since the end of the NATO-bombing campaign and the withdrawal of the Yugoslav security forces from Kosovo in 1999, the international community had been deploring the acts of revenge perpetrated by Kosovar Albanians against minority Serbs and Roma, and there was much concern about what would happen if the situation was not contained. In southern Serbia, I entered the conflict zone regularly (frowned upon by UN security) to try and mediate with Kosovar Albanian leaders on behalf of the displaced. I formulated the issue through a humanitarian lens by telling them what was necessary to put in place the conditions for the safe and sustainable return of the minority communities and to prevent further displacement. I focused first on a small town that was on the fault line between the two sides where the school was closed because it was close to a checkpoint. We were able to negotiate between the parties so that both sides backed about 100 meters away from the school to allow it to reopen. Further negotiations continued and eventually they agreed to declare the whole town a ‘humanitarian zone’. Six months later, we saw the separation of forces from that town and the beginning of the end of the conflict. What this goes to show is that a humanitarian can do real political work by saying to warring parties, “…look here, I have no real idea of the politics at work but let’s think about this from a humanitarian perspective” and it’s easier to negotiate that way.
My third example is one that can be considered the most successful in terms of the logistical challenges overcome, and yet one I also consider to be a moral failure on our part. In the summer of 1994, I had the responsibility of leading UNHCR’s response to the 1.2 million Hutu Rwandan refugees moving swiftly towards Goma in Eastern Zaire. I quickly became concerned that we had virtually depleted our emergency stand-by reserves and had no way of dealing with the impending demands. Knowing that under these circumstances, cash contributions would not provide the necessary response in time, I quickly developed the concept of ‘service packages’. These service packages, including airport services and airlift capabilities, site construction for camps, and sanitation and water supply, could be provided by Governments under the overall coordination of UNHCR. The response by donor Governments, led by the United States, was extraordinary and as a result, a serious cholera epidemic was brought under control. It was a remarkable endeavor but the sense of accomplishment was diminished by the fact that the Hutu militants took control of the civilians in the camps in Zaire, with devastating consequences for the Great Lakes Region of Africa for years to come.
Finally, what advice would you offer students who are interested in pursuing a career in policy making?
One piece of advice to students in the IPS program is to make the most of your educational opportunities. When I reflect on my education, I can see clearly how formative it was to the way I think about and analyze issues in my work. Students should really consider this the time to develop those analytical and writing skills that are necessary to craft international policies.
In terms of thinking about future careers, many students believe that they can go from an undergraduate degree to a Master’s then directly into working for a large multilateral agency like the UN. While this may be so in some cases, in general, the UN requires experience. I would encourage students to intern, especially for nonprofits, many of which work in the field of international development.
Finally, I would encourage students to recognize the new, expanded IPS program as an opportunity to have a hand in the type of learning that happens by being proactive about using the myriad resources that Stanford has available.