#26 John Cockell (WGH 1997-2000; 2001-02)

John Cockell, Goodenough Alumnus and Chief of Strategic Planning for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), spent a few days living in College in June 2022 – we caught up with him to find out more about his life and career since leaving the College.

During a career with the UN spanning more than 20 years John has taken on some challenging and dangerous appointments. These include helping to establish a UN interim administration mission in the contested territory of Kosovo; supporting the peace process leading to the independence of South Sudan; coordinating emergency field operations in Eastern Congo during the recent Ebola epidemic there; and now helping to manage the organisation’s most dangerous peacekeeping operation, in Mali.

“I arrived in Mali just as the first military coup had taken place in August 2020. In my work leading the Strategic Planning Unit of the Mission I’m working with a joint team of civilian, military and police planners. It’s one of the UN’s largest peacekeeping operations, what the UN terms a ‘complex integrated mission’, with over 15,000 personnel in the field, mainly uniformed military and police, and a $1.2 billion USD budget per year.

“There are ongoing violent attacks by groups that were not part of the peace agreement signed in 2015, as well as other dangers; since the Mission was established in 2013, over 180 personnel have been killed due to hostile acts, most involving improvised explosive devices. It is a really difficult environment to operate in, and the distances are also vast. Our contingents are spread very thin. Every Mission is composed of different contingents contributed from various countries. Here in MINUSMA we have large contingents in the field from countries such as Chad, Niger, Togo, Egypt, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and at our HQ in Bamako there is also  a large presence of NATO staff officers, including British, German, Swedish, Dutch, French, US and Canadian officers . So that mix is somewhat atypical for peacekeeping these days and gives MINUSMA an additional unique character.”

John’s career began with a role as a junior staff member in the Canadian Foreign Ministry in Ottawa, before he decided to study for PhD in international relations at the LSE.

“My wife Suraiya took up a position with the Commonwealth Secretariat in Pall Mall and we lived in William Goodenough House while I pursued my studies. I was keen to study at the LSE as it has been for a long time the foremost institution to study international relations and there was an eminent professor there working on the themes I was interested in. I’ve remained in touch with Professor James Mayall, who supervised my doctoral thesis, as I continue to value his guidance and expert views on international peace and security issues. He’s a real expert on Africa and, as my career has unfolded over the years, most of my field operations experience has been in African countries.

“When I began my PhD I was studying ethnic nationalist movements and how countries can better manage armed insurgencies that emerge from such movements. I’d done some earlier fieldwork in South Asia, but was looking for a new case study. So, when I was approached by former colleagues in Ottawa who asked if I’d be willing to go to Kosovo, where the UN was establishing a new peacekeeping mission, I said yes. They wanted to second Canadians to serve in the mission, and I was curious about the Balkans and hoped to use the experience for my doctorate.”

John and his wife both eventually travelled to Kosovo to work for the mission there, UNMIK, and returned to Goodenough in 2001 when Suraiya was expecting their first child.

“Our son, Adam, is  21 now and at university himself, but he was born here in London and we still think of him as our ‘Square Baby’. Our first days with him were here in the garden and of course you never forget that. A lot our first photos of him were taken here in the garden.

“I don’t honestly know how we’d have managed to live the quiet, calm, just wonderful quality of life we had in London if we hadn’t been able to live here. We were very lucky and we’ve never forgotten that.”

The Kosovo experience inspired John to eventually leave the Canadian government and pursue a career with the UN, while Suraiya moved on from her Commonwealth experience to build a 20-year career as a Development Specialist with the Canadian International Development Agency (now part of Global Affairs Canada). “I go back and forth between Mali and Canada every eight weeks or so, so it’s helpful to have a partner who understands.

“When I’m able to visit London being able to stay in the College is so nice. It looks much as I remember it – so much so it’s a bit like sitting in a time machine.

“The College was the setting for some of the happiest times in our lives. We were young and optimistic and surrounded by people with the same positivity. Some of our dearest friends are people we met at Goodenough and we keep in touch to this day.”