By Atsuko Matsumoto / Japan News Staff Writer Ever since Agnes Marcaillou became director of the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in 2012, she has been motivated every day by the direct impact of her mission on the people she works for.
“What we do is very concrete and very tangible,” Marcaillou said last week during an interview in Tokyo. “If we do not get up in the morning, somebody will die.”
Explosive hazards still kill or maim about 10 people each day around the world. UNMAS surveys land riddled with such weapons, fences it off or clears it if necessary. Last year, about 168,000 explosive remnants of war and 10,000 land mines were destroyed in UNMAS operations.
“There’s a direct relationship between what we do and the people in a country [where we carry out our operations], and I wanted to move away from conference rooms to help directly the situation on the ground,” Marcaillou said regarding her decision to step up for her current position.
In addition to demining operations, an equally important task is for UNMAS to train local staff to provide risk education to residents in affected areas to raise awareness of the dangers of explosive hazards.
“People do not wait for international staff to come when they’re moving away from conflict, or when they’re coming back home, or if they decide to cultivate their land,” Marcaillou said.
In one such session in June, she visited Gaziantep in southern Turkey. Local UNMAS staff taught refugee children from Syria about different kinds of explosive hazards and what to do when they come across them.
“Every weapon that the teacher showed them, these little children knew already,” Marcaillou recalled.
Among the many countries she has been to, she said these children in particular remain vividly in her mind. Aged only around 4 to 11, some had lost their parents, while others witnessed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant advancing into their neighborhoods. Bombings, collapsed buildings and death were nothing new to them.
“It is real. Then you read in the newspapers that refugees are dangerous. But what I saw was little kids who have nowhere to go. This is where we all have a responsibility to do something,” she said.
1st female director
Marcaillou, a native of France, said she has always had an interest in international relations and politics. This naturally led her to pursue a career in the United Nations.
As the director of UNMAS, she oversees the program in 18 countries and regions. She is the first woman to head the office and did not deny at all the existence of a glass ceiling.
The director candidly admitted “the perception of a woman being vulnerable” still exists, leading to questions like: “Can she do the job? It’s about weapons and war.”
“Yes,” she said with a big smile. “To do the job, you need a brain and experience. I do not carry weapons. I do not need extraordinary physical skills. Therefore, I can do the job.”
When she assumed the post, the majority of the people she worked with were men from a military background. “My first obstacle was to gain their trust. It was also for me to learn how to communicate in a way that would be acceptable,” she said, describing the skill as emotional intelligence.
But as an UNMAS director with an unusual background involving no military experience, she was a breath of fresh air for her colleagues.
“I made everybody understand that I do not have to be an expert in everything to lead an office. I’m not military. I’m not a deminer. I don’t need this. They have to do their job well, and I pilot the ship,” she said.
After she assumed the post, the number of female staff increased, and 60 percent of her staff at headquarters are currently women.
“It is essential for the United Nations to represent the world that we serve. If you only apply a man’s approach to a problem, you’re missing half of the solution. Peace cannot be achieved only by half of the population,” she said. “This is not feminism. This is business.”
In some post-conflict countries, UNMAS employs local women as community liaison officers. This enables UNMAS to reach areas where they normally have no access due to safety and cultural reasons. Working for UNMAS, these women gain status, skills and income.
“The reconstruction will depend on a lot of women because men are dead, injured. So this is really helping women play an economic role,” the director said.
Japan’s role in demining
Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Ottawa Convention, which bans the production, use, stockpiling and transferring of antipersonnel land mines. Japan was one of about 120 countries and regions that signed the historic treaty.
Japan has been the top donor country to UNMAS since 2012. In 2016, it contributed $16.3 million to demining programs in eight countries, including Iraq and Somalia.
The director wants Japanese people to always remember that they are not simply giving their tax money, but supporting “a real person at the end.”
“That goes directly to somebody’s life, somebody’s field, somebody’s school,” Marcaillou said, adding that Japan’s funding is “very clearly changing the situation on the ground.”
The importance of demining operations should be highlighted more because many humanitarian actions decided at the U.N. Security Council cannot be implemented if the ground is contaminated with explosives.
Marcaillou hopes Japan, as a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council, will play a role in reminding other nations of that aspect and encouraging them to follow the path of Japan.
Marcaillou stressed that land mines are not a problem of the past, saying: “The more funding you give UNMAS, the more teams I can deploy to clear, the more risk education campaigns I can organize. So this is not something impossible for next century. It can be done now. We know how to do it.”