Interview with UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson

UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson. UN Photo/D. Berkowitz

27 August 2012 – Jan Eliasson started work as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations on 1 July.

The UN system’s second highest-ranking official is no stranger to the ins and outs of international relations and diplomacy. His previous service includes serving as the UN’s first-ever Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Darfur, the President of the 60th session of the UN General Assembly and the Secretary-General’s Personal Representative for Iran/Iraq, as well as various national posts in the Swedish Government, such as Ambassador to the US, Foreign Minister, and Ambassador to the United Nations in New York.

Some weeks after he started in his new post, the UN News Centre spoke with Mr. Eliasson about his work, as well as his hopes and motivations.

UN News Centre: What issues on the international agenda will you focus on in your new role at the United Nations?

Deputy Secretary-General: Well, as Deputy Secretary-General, I will of course focus on what the Secretary-General wants me to work on. But I will mostly focus most on two areas: development, and we face some very serious challenges in this area, and, secondly, political issues. I have a background in conflict management, and even resolution in some cases. The Secretary-General has asked me to particularly work in these two areas.

On development, there’s such a wide range of areas, but the most urgent issue is the fooWe are often criticized but I think we are a reflection of the world as it is and not as we want it to be – but we have to bridge that gap, make sure the world becomes more of what we want it to be.d security crisis. We are expecting food price increases all over the world in the next four to five months, and this could lead to social unrest, it could lead to inflationary effects, it could lead to starvation in many countries.

We also have a very inspiring task ahead of us: we have to follow up on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), where we still have important work to do, by the way. We have to follow up on the strategy for the period after 2015, where we should introduce – apart from the absolutely crucial task of fighting poverty – the elements of sustainability and other aspects that are the pillars of economic development. And that process is now underway, with both a panel set up by the Secretary-General on the post-2015 development agenda, but also Member States’ initiatives to prepare discussions on sustainable development goals. And these two tracks, I hope, will merge, and then lead to a discussion among Member States, who have, of course, the ultimate voice on this, and in the end lead to defining and formulating the goals for the road ahead after 2015.

On political affairs, well, you have many crises. The most dramatic one, the most internationally recognized one is, of course, Syria, where we are dealing with very serious matters, providing hopefully a peaceful alternative to the horrible fighting and suffering going on now, with huge humanitarian consequences.

I’m very glad that the Secretary-General, a few days ago, received the acceptance of Lakhdar Brahimi, a well-known, respected mediator, to play the role of trying to identify a political alternative and hopefully get the parties of the conflict, with the help of Member States, to agree.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from left), Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson (second from right) and other senior officials, meet with Lakhdar Brahimi (third from right), the newly-appointed Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syrian crisis. (August 2012) UN Photo/Evan Schneider

UN News Centre: With Syria dominating the international media landscape, is there the risk that other pressing international crises are not receiving the attention they warrant?

Deputy Secretary-General: That is a very legitimate question. Sometimes we focus on just one conflict and the rest is in tragic shadow. We have, for instance, had a long, very difficult situation with tragic consequences in [the Democratic Republic of the] Congo for several years, and we still have very serious tensions in eastern Congo.

There is a very serious situation in the Sahel area, where you have a humanitarian crisis affecting 18 million people, out of which one million are children. And at the same time, you have very serious conflict potential in northern Mali, where there has been a take-over, and the country is, in reality, split into two. The Secretary-General has taken an initiative to have a discussion in the margins of the General Assembly in September, where we will cover the comprehensive picture, so to speak, with both humanitarian and political aspects.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulates Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson following the latter’s swearing-in ceremony. (July 2012) UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

These are only two examples of conflicts that are hidden – but I would widen that to the development area, the silent deaths that occur every day. You know, [in relation to] water and sanitation, 780 million people don’t have access to clean water; 2.5 billion don’t have sanitation, that’s a third of humanity; about 3,000 children die every day, under the age of five, because of diarrhoea, dysentery, cholera, dehydration – I’ve see it with my own eyes, in Somalia in the 90s, when I was Emergency Relief Coordinator, and most recently when I was in Darfur, 2006 to ’08.

UN News Centre: Speaking of crises, where are things at in relation to the recent cross-border tensions between Sudan and South Sudan?

Deputy Secretary-General: In a world of bad news, there is some good news coming from the discussions between the leaders of South Sudan and Sudan. When I was in Addis Ababa recently, at the African Union summit, I noticed that there was a new atmosphere in the discussions and both leaders – President Salva Kiir of the south and President Bashir of the north – met directly and discussed their problems.

When I was mediating the Darfur crisis, they were in the same Government – so I met Salva Kiir and President Bashir in Khartoum. Now, of course, Salva Kiir, is the head of a new, independent nation. But they know each other very well, and, as a mediator, I always said “once the parties meet and talk between themselves, we’ve done great progress.”

There has been progress. Most recently on the oil issue, which was hurting both countries for a long time. But I hope we will soon see progress, both on the border issues, and the need for a safe area as a buffer zone, so that the military forces are not standing right close to each other, and on humanitarian access to [the states of] Southern Kordorfan and Blue Nile. There is progress and I hope the agreements that we have reached will now be implemented.

In an interview with the UN News Centre, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson speaks about the underpinnings in his approach to his work. Credit: UN Webcast

UN News Centre: While serving as President of the General Assembly in 2005, you were heavily involved in the meeting which led to the establishment of the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (also known as ‘R2P’). How have you seen its development since then?

Deputy Secretary-General: Well, the responsibility to protect says something very important and that is that States and Governments have a responsibility to protect their own population from ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass killing.

That’s the easy part of the formulation from 2005. The more difficult part is what happens when governments cannot live up to that responsibility. That’s when the international community has a responsibility.

But when we negotiated that principle, it was very important that we underlined the preventive element, to get in early, and also that everything had to be done on a collective basis – you cannot make reference to the responsibility to protect for an individual action from a government, you have to do it on a collective basis – but, unfortunately, it seems that the preventive element has got lost in the debate after Libya.

Jan Eliasson, in his role of Special Envoy for Darfur, confers with officials while in Hosh, Sudan. (January 2008) UN Photo/Stuart Price

I think we need to restore that balance, bring back the preventive element, because we cannot throw away the baby with the bath-tub water and say that the responsibility to protect does not work. I think we have achieved something very important by establishing this principle that every government, every state has that responsibility.

How often have we felt the frustration of mass killings inside countries? Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebenica… for the future, we have to find ways of discovering those signs, feel those vibrations in the ground, before it goes into the genocide phase. I hope that we will have a continued attachment to this principle, but particularly remind ourselves of the preventive elements.

UN News Centre: Why did you accept the appointment to the position of UN Deputy Secretary-General?

Deputy Secretary-General: Well, my wife says that it’s probably a drug in my veins!

I have worked with the UN since 1980, in different capacities – I’ve been mediating in several situations, I was [the UN] Emergency Relief Coordinator, I was the Permanent Representative [of Sweden to the United Nations], I was President of the General Assembly, and, in the meantime, I served in the Swedish Government as Foreign Minister – and the United Nations has always been very close to my heart. I believe in the values and principles of the United Nations.

We are often criticized but I think we are a reflection of the world as it is and not as we want it to be – but we have to bridge that gap, make sure the world becomes more of what we want it to be. And I think I have a duty to use my experiences of the past in this present position and I will just promise to do my very best and hope that I will have the cooperation of colleagues and friends all over inside the UN and outside.

Jan Eliasson, as the new Permanent Representative of Sweden to the United Nations, presents his credentials to Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar. (March 1988) UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata

UN News Centre: After all your public service, especially at the international level, some would say that if anyone deserved a well-earned break, it would be you...

Deputy Secretary-General: Again, I have to quote my wise wife, who says that it would probably be better for me to do this rather than not have tasks of this nature. She sometimes jokes with me on Friday afternoon when I come back, or the evening rather, as it usually is. If I’m not in the best of moods, she says ‘Jan, did you not have enough crises this week?!’

I need my dosage of challenges, and it has developed in such a way that I probably feel better having these challenges and dealing with them, and have the chance to use my own experiences to try to solve some of the horrible crises we have in the world and the long-term challenges that we face. So, I can live with it, it’s not a big sacrifice for me.

UN News Centre: The following was written about your appointment: “low-key and a good listener as well as a problem-solver, Eliasson brings strong credentials to the Deputy Secretary-General’s office, which has been viewed as a weak spot in the UN administration.” Your thoughts?</p>

Deputy Secretary-General: Well, these are very kind words about me, but I think the Secretary-General provides the leadership that we need, and that he asked me to serve at his side I see as a sign of confidence. I work very closely, not only with him of course, but others too. We try also to work with a spirit of light touch, a smile, making things bounce a little bit and create, as much as possible, a sense of team-spirit – I believe that no one can do everything but everyone can do something. And I think you have to bring out all the resources that exist in this organization.

Jan Eliasson, as President of the 60th session of the General Assembly, takes part in the annual Student Conference on Human Rights, held at UN Headquarters in New York. (December 2005) UN Photo/Mark Garten

I have served very much out in the field, and I’ve seen so many colleagues, both at Headquarters and in the field, who are so committed and who really want to work in the spirit of the UN Charter, but also are very practically-oriented dealing with a child who is dying from diarrheea in front of you, and having that struggle at the same time that you know that this is work which has to do with the achievement of what the authors of that Charter wanted us to do.

I often say to colleagues that when we enter discussions about turf – you know, who’s responsible for what – “Listen, remember, we should always remember the Charter and the child,” so that we come back to what is basic, the principles and the values of international cooperation, peace, development and human rights… but also in the end, we have to prove that we are delivering out in the field, in the realities, in the conflicts, in the development situation, in the struggle for respect of human rights.

UN News Centre: You’ve been back almost two months now… what’s it been like?

Deputy Secretary-General: A lot of work! I admire the work ethic, I come to the office and I meet my colleagues – 8:10 a.m. is usually the time I arrive – and then in the evening, I’m happy to get back at that time, p.m., that is after 12 hours, and then try to relax a little bit and read the papers for the following day’s events, so it’s a tremendous work-rhythm.

Jan Eliasson, as outgoing President of the 60th session of the General Assembly, receives a round of applause from Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others in the General Assembly Hall. (September 2006) UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

What I’ve enjoyed also, was to get out to the field. I was in Addis Ababa and I have made it, hopefully, a rule that I will not only go to conferences but also see the realities in the field. I went to a youth UNICEF project outside Addis, and I felt that inspiration from combining my attachment to the Charter, which I have, and – but the way, I always have it in my pocket… here it is… you see, it’s been well-read! My favourite chapter here is Chapter 6, which is this almost poetic-titled ‘Pacific Settlement of Disputes,’ that the parties to any dispute shall first of all seek ‘a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice’ – this is what I say is Christmas Eve for a Swedish diplomat, or a UN diplomat, I hope.

UN News Centre: What drives you?

Deputy Secretary-General: Usually, people say that they are driven by their successes, and the successes that I’ve had are important and they make me work harder. But I have more or less taught myself to work uphill, to get energy from failures, from tragic situations which continue to fester.

I remember having been to Somalia during the worst part of the civil war there in 1992 – it was the worst I’ve ever seen, it was worse than Darfur – many of my colleagues broke down, were disillusioned, they couldn’t sleep and had to leave, practically.

A wide view of the General Assembly Hall showing Jan Eliasson, as President of the 60th UN General Assembly, speaking at the session's opening. (September 2005) UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

I felt anger, although I didn’t show it. I felt that they shouldn’t defeat me as the way they have defeated and killed these young people, women and men, all over Somalia. I felt that I have to teach myself that even if you have horrible circumstances, that you should also be trying to get energy from that.

We live once, I suppose, for a limited period of time and we should do our utmost to try to make the world a little bit better – you can’t be too lofty and have too-high ambitions, because then that might lead to deep disappointment, but step-by-step! Step-by-step we can improve the world. This is what we at the UN shall always keep in mind. I notice now when I talk to colleagues here that there is such a desire to do what we are meant to do, and that we should work together and put the problem at the centre, and then unite around that problem, no matter what perspective we have on the problem, and rather focus on the problem instead of – as we often do – our own organization, our own part of the bureaucracy and so forth.

UN News Centre: When asked in five years what are you proudest of in your term as Deputy Secretary-General, what do you hope to be able to respond?

Deputy Secretary-General: I’m here to serve the Secretary-General and his priorities are my priorities. He has sustainable development as his priority; he has prevention, which is absolutely crucial, as his priority; he has policies for countries in transition, and we see it now, not least in northern Africa and the Arab world; he has the issues of youth and women at the centre of his attention; he wants to provide new methods to deal with peacekeeping and peacemaking. All these priorities are my priorities, and I hope we will be able to look back at those five priorities and see that we have made progress.

In an interview with the UN News Centre, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson speaks about the importance that the UN Charter has for him. Credit: UN Webcast

I don’t think you can say, in our world, “mission accomplished” – of course, if we can see peace in Syria, mission would be accomplished although there’s a lot of work to do even after such a situation – but in development, the respect of human rights, the rule of law, it’s constant, ongoing effort, work and I should never lean back and say “mission has been accomplished.” There is so much to improve in this world, and I’m sure we will have to continue to work, but we should be accepting that in order to reach a goal you have to take one step at a time.

Dag Hammarskjold – a compatriot of mine, the second Secretary-General – had a saying which has influenced me a lot. He says that when you face the future, and go ahead to meet the future, remember to look both at the feet that you put on the ground, but watch the horizon – so, a combination of the vision that you want to see with the practical steps that you have to take in order to get to that vision, is probably a good approach.

UN News Centre: You were born in 1940. Lakhdar Brahimi is around 80-something…

Deputy Secretary-General: No, he’s 78, born in 1934!

UN News Centre: … and the incoming President of the General Assembly is 37. That’s a wide range there in ages. Where does age, youth and experience fit into international relations?

Jan Eliasson, as President of the 60th session of the General Assembly, greets children during a visit to the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. (May 2006) UN Photo/Bernard Wahihia

Deputy Secretary-General: My saying is that age is a matter of mind. And then I add: if you don’t mind, then it doesn’t matter!  

I think you should keep your youthful attitude and you should involve and engage everybody. I have tremendous joy from meeting young people, both in the university realm – where I was visiting professor at two universities in Sweden, as recently as last year – but also the young people in the UN.

I’m not very hierarchical, you know, I want to hear the voices of everybody. I think that the aspirations and the dreams of young people should be brought to the table, also in the UN. I think we should be more relaxed about age and generations; of course, we should realize that in an organizations there is a higher responsibility with the heads of units, heads of departments – we should recognize that responsibility. But I think we should also listen to the voices of everybody.

I find that I am enriched if I forget the generational differences; well, for me it’s an advantage, of course, to always meet young people – they keep me young, hopefully!