Shortly after the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, former Mountie Gilles Michaud came face-to-face with a man with a $10 million US bounty on his head.
In his role as an under-secretary general of the United Nations, Michaud was in Afghanistan in 2021 to meet with the new Taliban government’s interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani. Their goal that day — just two weeks after the hasty and chaotic departure of American troops — was to negotiate the conditions under which UN workers would continue to operate in Afghanistan.
As soon as a deal was struck, Haqqani left. He’s on the FBI’s wanted list as a “specially designated global terrorist” and lives in fear of a drone attack.
Michaud, 57, who runs the UN’s Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS), left the meeting knowing he wouldn’t collect the reward on Haqqani — but confident he had done what could be done to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers in the absence of American soldiers.
The meeting with Haqqani was one of the stranger twists in the career of the former RCMP deputy commissioner. Over his 33 years in the national police force, Michaud moved up from small-town drug busts in the 1980s to international investigations of Russian espionage activities and global terrorist networks in the 2000s.
“Criminals, usually, I want to put them in jail. In these instances, I’ve got to deal with them because they are the ones that will give access to our humanitarian partners,” he said in a recent interview at UN headquarters in New York.
As the head of UNDSS, Michaud — a native of Saint-Léonard in northern New Brunswick — is responsible for protecting hundreds of thousands of UN employees and their families, the organization’s buildings across the globe, and tens of billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to high-risk areas.
That last task only gets more complex by the day. Humanitarian crises are multiplying. When catastrophic earthquakes struck Turkey and Syria in early February, the UN was already dealing with the war in Ukraine, drought in Somalia, armed conflicts in Ethiopia and the Congo, disorder in Haiti and waves of refugees around the world.
Michaud’s department operates with an annual budget of $300 million US that remains stable, despite a steady rise in demands for help. Rapid inflation has helped to make the situation untenable.
In recent weeks, he has been hitting up potential donor countries with one-time, extra-budgetary funding requests to modernize his department. His goal is to build an emergency response team that can move quickly into high-risk areas and ensure more effective UN deployments.
Since last November, Michaud has been urging the Canadian government to come up with $10 million US to get his program off the ground. That, he said, would make it easier to convince other countries to fund his projects, which are estimated to cost $15 million US over two years.
“They have been receptive to what I’m proposing, but I still don’t have an answer if they will and to what amount,” Michaud said.
“There is no humanitarian program that can be delivered without security.”
UNDSS was created one year after a 2003 suicide bombing in Baghdad killed 22 people, including the organization’s representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
UN operations remain dangerous to this day. Every year, hundreds of employees are injured, robbed or attacked, kidnapped or killed. Five UN workers have been held hostage in Yemen since last year. Three UN workers died in Benghazi, Libya in August 2019 when their vehicle exploded.
“Usually, we will invest in security when there are incidents … When there are no incidents, people do not recognize the preventive work that is done in terms of safety,” said Michaud.
When it comes to building support in international circles for UN operations, he said, it helps to be Canadian.
“Globally, in every setting, there is one thing about presenting yourself as being from the United Nations. [People] respect that, they respect the neutrality that you bring. But as soon as they know you’re Canadian, it changes the dynamics in the room,” said Michaud. “For me, that has been very helpful.”
Joyce Msuya, UN assistant secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs, is a native of Tanzania who attended the University of Ottawa. Although her own humanitarian aid programs constantly require additional funds, she said she supports UNDSS’s request for more money.
“It takes two hands to clap. Humanitarians work very closely with UNDSS,” she said. “To have access to deliver humanitarian assistance anywhere in the world, the first and fundamental criteria, not just for the UN agencies but also humanitarian partners such as NGOs, is security.”
In her own experience in countries like Yemen and Somalia, she said, UN security teams are “underrepresented” on the ground.
Calls for humanitarian aid are blowing up around the world. The UN plans to spend $51.5 billion US to help 230 million people in 70 countries this year.
UN teams on the ground take risks every day. Without the input of UNDSS — which coordinates security with other agencies and organizations, makes risk assessments and negotiates access with local authorities — humanitarian work could grind to a halt in high-risk areas.
“We deal with crises daily. We cannot ourselves be in a state of crisis when we respond to crises. So we need to have a certain serenity in the management of crises and an ability to respond to these crises that is permanent and not linked to the mobilization of funds for a specific crisis,” said Florence Poussin, deputy director of regional operations for UNDSS.
Going beyond guns and guards
To ensure the safety of humanitarian deployments, the UN constantly negotiates access with warring parties. In Ukraine, for example, UNDSS teams engage with both Moscow and Kyiv to find out when the fighting will stop each day so that they can deliver aid to displaced populations.
To convince all parties of its impartiality, the UN is barred from receiving information from any of its member states’ intelligence services. That condition may engender trust — but it also aggravates the risks faced by UN workers.
“My concern is that you will see situations where UN staff will not be able to go and deliver on the ground where they need to be. You may find that UN staff are in a country, but may sit in a bunker somewhere or in some fortified building because they are afraid to go out because the situation is too dangerous, which would completely defy the purpose,” said Esther Kuisch Laroche, director of partnerships within UNDSS.
The UN is active in 125 countries, including 40 that qualify as high-risk locations. Ensuring security in these countries goes beyond the presence of armed guards.
The UN says it expects its humanitarian missions to draw on knowledge of local conditions and of diplomatic dealings with authorities (including armed and terrorist groups), and to coordinate with various humanitarian agencies, including non-governmental organizations.
“When we mention the word ‘security,’ it always comes back to guns, gates and guards. And it is one element of what we do, but it’s a very small element,” Michaud said. “The real element that we do when it comes to security is enabling program delivery for UN entities.”
Richard Gowan, an international affairs expert with the International Crisis Group, said the UN often finds itself virtually alone when engaging with countries in crisis.
“There are places like Afghanistan or Syria where you don’t have NATO forces and Western troops are not there on the ground in significant numbers, but aid agencies are. In some of these places, such as Syria, we leave it to the UN to help people who, quite frankly, we have otherwise deserted,” he said.
An ‘insurance policy’ for humanitarian aid
Michaud is looking for a permanent budget increase for UNDSS. In the meantime, he is proposing projects worth $15 million US over two years — better psychological services for his workers, IT modernization tools to improve communication with teams on the ground, and the planned emergency response team.
He approached Ottawa in November, saying he wanted to give Canada “first dibs.”
“It’s turning back to Canada, knowing that Canada has a lot of investments in humanitarian assistance worldwide and they could have a more significant impact by having a small investment [in security],” he said.
Michaud said an additional investment in UNDSS would be a form of “insurance policy” that would help to guarantee the delivery of $52 billion US in humanitarian aid planned for 2023.
“This $52 billion is not going anywhere unless you have an agile and responsive security element to support these operations,” Michaud said.
Global Affairs Canada told CBC/Radio Canada it is studying the UNDSS funding request.
With his five-year term ending next year, Michaud is growing impatient. While he did not take his current position with a mandate to reform UNDSS, the idea has taken hold of him since 2019.
While he awaits responses from potential donor countries, Michaud continues to visit operations on the ground. Every day he’s confronted by the fact that millions of people depend on UN aid in parts of the world where the normal order has broken down.
“What strikes me the most is seeing how they need the United Nations to come to their assistance. We’re talking about really basic needs, providing them with water, food, blankets. To see the children, the women, the families who are separated because of displacement, it is always touching,” he said.
“There are so many people in need that we have to take risks, because we are really talking about taking risks to save lives every day.”