UN mediator: Don't take peace for granted

by Richard Andrews

UN officer and mediator Diego Osorio with Afghan militia members in 2002.

From Kosovo to East Timor, Iraq to Haiti and Colombia to Afghanistan, UN officer and mediator Diego Osorio, BA’ 96, has worked in the world’s major conflict and disaster zones.

The experience of so much death and destruction has shown him the fragility of peace.

“I’ve become very vigilant and aware that conflict can happen anywhere,” says Osorio. "I’ve seen how little it takes for things to turn ugly.”

Osorio warns Canadians against complacency and urges them to shed the belief that ‘it can never happen to us.’

“Whether it’s Kosovo or Iraq, the fact is that they were not at one point fragile societies past the brink of civil war,” he says. “If they had problems, they seemed to be manageable until a sudden combination of factors led to the results we’ve seen. No human group is exempt from these types of excesses if appropriate, preventive or corrective measures are not implemented.”

Osorio is currently working in Liberia with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations to monitor political development, reconciliation and distribution of international aid, as the nation reconstructs after years of civil war and mismanagement. It’s a role he’s played in various countries and the demands of the job can be slightly bizarre.

“During 1999, when the UN was reconstructing government institutions in Kosovo, I was part of the team launching the vehicle registration process, which was important to help determine who was the legitimate authority,” says Osorio.

“It turned into a race over licence plates,” he says. “We had to design, produce and issue them faster than the insurgent Kosovo Albanian Liberation Army, because the winner could stand up and claim the most legitimacy. The first two days of issuing plates came straight out of my own laptop.”

After Kosovo, Osorio’s assignments included repeated stints in Iraq and Afghanistan where he mediated between humanitarian groups, various international organizations, local authorities and US forces.

No easy call, yet the son of parents who knew the turmoil of Colombia seems ideally suited to the task. Thoughtful and soft spoken, Osorio’s very presence creates a sense of calm conducive to dialogue.

“To be a mediator you need to frame reality through the eyes of others,” he says. “You have to see their perspective, their feelings, their values and concepts. If you don’t, you never reach the point where you can build a bridge.

“A mediator also needs to have a good sense of timing and understanding of each party’s tempo. One must also understand that what seemed a bad idea today can be a good idea tomorrow, or vice versa, because a missed window of opportunity can mean lost lives.”

Citing the influence of various professors, the UN officer credits McGill for launching his career in international affairs and mediation.

“I had the good fortune to take classes with Rex Brynen from the Department of Political Science,” says Osorio. “I also developed my insights with support from people such as Alain Gagnon in Quebec politics, Michael Szonyi in Chinese history, Philip Oxhorn in Latin American institutional analysis and Ludger Muller-Wille from Geography.

“My first experience with the UN was participating in the McGill Model United Nations and negotiating a hypothetical resolution. That’s where it all started.”

But that’s not where it all finished.

“Human history seems to be marked by a series of mistakes we make over and over again, whether it’s war, politics or the environment,” says Osorio. “It may sound too idealistic, but I’m looking for ways to break that cycle.”

You could say that’s a mission largely created 13 years ago when Osorio helped a large UN team to conduct a referendum on East Timor’s independence from Indonesian annexation. The voting process was marked by widespread violence in the conflict-torn island.

“The local staff working with us were aware their participation put them in danger, but said they were willing to die for the cause,” says Osorio. “When the polls closed at six pm, I took two plastic boxes filled with votes, sealed them, put them in the car and shook hands with 10 people who were not part of this planet the next day.

“I was entrusted with the souls of 10 people - and many others who voted - in two plastic boxes.

“That for me means a lot.”

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