Interview with Vuk Jeremić, President of the 67th session of the General Assembly

Vuk Jeremić, President of the 67th General Assembly. UN Photo/Mark Garten

18 September 2012 – Vuk Jeremić was elected President of the 67th session of the UN General Assembly in June, at which time he was serving as Serbia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Throughout his five years as Foreign Minister, Mr. Jeremić was actively engaged in the work of the UN, representing his country at key sessions of the Assembly and the Security Council. He began his career in public service as Adviser to the Minister of Telecommunications of Yugoslavia in 2000. Prior to that, he worked for a number of financial institutions in London.

The UN News Centre spoke with the 37-year-old diplomat and avid tennis fan on the eve of the Assembly’s new session, which opened on 18 September.

UN News Centre: Why did Serbia put forward its candidacy for the post of General Assembly President this year?

Vuk Jeremić: Yugoslavia, the political predecessor of Serbia, was one of the founding members of the United Nations and a country that was very active in the international arena for a number of decades. Close to the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, the country became one of the last victims of the Cold War. We were torn apart by strife and now there are six countries. That process was very, very painful. We went through a war and behind us are some very nasty scenes: fratricide, international conflicts and so on.

We are witnessing a number of hotspots flaring up, and we believe that the United Nations is the only institution with the ultimate legitimacy to get involved and to try to resolve these conflicts.

About 20 years ago, Serbia – Yugoslavia, at the time – was left out of the chamber of the General Assembly as a result of the war. In the past 12 years, we’ve been building democracy in our country. We are now a responsible global citizen. We have been working very hard on the process of reconciliation in the Balkans, reaching out to our neighbours, reaching out to the entire international community, even countries with which we’ve had some bitter disagreements over the past two decades. In a way, a painful era is now coming to an end.

We put forward our candidacy for the Presidency of the General Assembly to mark the end of an era; I am very grateful for the support of a vast number of countries. My tenure will mark the re-instatement on the international scene of a country that was a founding member of the United Nations, and a proud victor over fascism. By winning this post, I feel Serbia is able to play a lead role in the family of nations.

UN News Centre: Given that tumultuous background, what does it mean for you personally to be in the forefront of this?

Vuk Jeremić: I believe this is, most of all, a vote of confidence in Serbia. When Serbia put forward my candidacy, I was Foreign Minister at the time. I did travel extensively – I visited about 100 countries over the course of my two terms as Foreign Minister. And, in a way, it was a logical choice to put forward the sitting Foreign Minister. I see myself, first and foremost, as being in the service of making sure that Serbia can demonstrate it has the capacity to be a responsible global citizen, capable of leading one of the most important, relevant, representative institutions – the General Assembly of the United Nations.

UN News Centre: What are your priorities for the coming 12 months?

In an interview with the UN News Centre, Mr. Jeremić speaks about some of the key aims of the latest General Assembly session. Credit: UN Webcast

Vuk Jeremić: The official theme for the General Debate, which in a way shapes your priorities, is the peaceful resolution of disputes, mediation and conflict prevention. It actually coincides with the theme of the previous General Assembly and we wanted to make sure that there is continuity in this central theme. We strongly believe that conflict prevention and conflict resolution is at the heart of what the international community at the moment, given the circumstances, needs to do.

We live in a very, very turbulent time. We are witnessing a number of hotspots flaring up, and we believe that the United Nations is the only institution with the ultimate legitimacy to get involved and try to resolve these conflicts and also work hard, on multiple levels and multiple fronts, to prevent future conflicts from being generated. So, conflict prevention, conflict resolution, mediation and the peaceful resolution of world problems is going to be at the heart of what we’ll be trying to do in the next 12 months.

UN News Centre: Does Serbia’s specific history and background put it in a special place to act upon that priority?

Vuk Jeremić: Reconciliation and resolving disputes by peaceful means was at the heart of the legacy of the Serbian Government that I had the privilege to serve over the past two terms as Foreign Minister. In a way, this is a continuation of what we believe should be at the heart of resolving problems, not only in our part of the world. That is – without recourse to war, but through peaceful means, not only in our part of the world, but throughout the globe. We’re going to try to spread this philosophy. We’re going to try and use our experience in helping resolve international conflicts that are very complex. We’re not overly ambitious. We’re not unrealistic in what we can and what we can’t achieve as Serbia or as the General Assembly itself.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) holds a bilateral meeting with Mr. Jeremić during his service as his country's Foreign Minister. (March 2008) UN Photo/Mark Garten

We, in the Balkans, have gone through some very difficult times. We have learned our lesson the hard way. But now the Balkans is a place of peace and although there are some unresolved issues and some very strong views on political issues, there is no danger of a war breaking out again in the Balkans. So, I think we have certain experience and we’re ready to share this experience and goodwill with others.

UN News Centre: What do you foresee as some of your biggest challenges as General Assembly President?

Vuk Jeremić: We live in a very, very volatile world. The world is changing really fast and it is changing in unpredictable ways. We seem to be beset by a series of ruptures that are growing in intensity, the effects of which seem to be difficult to be kept in check. It is very difficult to foresee what can happen in the next 12 months, especially in some troubled corners of the world. So, we planned up to 70 or 80 per cent of our capacity, time and resources and we’ve left 30 to 35 per cent entirely up to things that can end up being thrown at us over the next 12 months.

UN News Centre: What are your thoughts on eventual efforts to make the General Assembly more relevant and revitalized?

Outgoing General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser (second right) hands over the gavel to his successor, Vuk Jeremić. Secretary-General Ban is at left. (September 2012) UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Vuk Jeremić: I’m going to call on the Member States to participate in the General Debate with the aim of providing us with new thoughts and ideas on revitalizing the General Assembly. We do have some plans and ideas of our own but I would rather hear out the leaders of the world participating in the General Debate. And then after the General Debate is over, trying to wrap up all these thoughts and come up, before the end of this year, with a process for enriching the efforts undertaken by my predecessors. The General Assembly is the main representative policy-making organ of the United Nations. We need to have it at the heart of international developments. We need to make it relevant. We need to make it very visible. I’m going to try and do my best from the podium as President to help this.

I don’t want to be unrealistically ambitious. It’s a difficult time. We have a difficult system in the United Nations. Despite all the flaws, it’s the best international system ever conceived by mankind. I’ll try to do my best to make sure that this body – the most democratic, the most representative body of the United Nations – takes on a more visible or, if you will, a louder role in trying to work with the family of nations with the main aim of resolving international disputes peacefully.

UN News Centre: What are your thoughts regarding the constant lack of funding faced by the General Assembly President’s office?

Vuk Jeremić: I really believe that the international community should try and devote more resources to the President of the General Assembly's (PGA) office. We have a trust fund for the PGA and it’s near empty, as I understand. Most of the nations of the world can aspire to lead this body. There are some rich nations, and there are some poor nations. Some of them come from the North and some come from the South. And they have different forms of government. This is the most prominent position that can be achieved by any country and I believe that they should be given a fair goal if they’re elected, so that they have adequate resources, so that their ideas – no matter how small or big, or rich or poor – can be put into practice.

Secretary-General Ban is welcomed by Mr. Jeremić on his arrival in Belgrade. (July 2012) UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The next PGA comes from the Caribbean, which is not the richest part of the world. A couple of ones before me came from very, very rich countries – from Asia or Europe. They had a better chance given their resources. I think we should provide for an equal chance. This is what I believe the United Nations is about, among other things – to make sure there is a fair chance and a fair say. It’s also about sovereign equality which is enshrined in the UN Charter and says that everybody is equal no matter how small or big, rich or poor.

UN News Centre: When we sit here in 12 months time and I ask you what you can point to as your achievements as General Assembly President, what do you hope to be able to say?

Vuk Jeremić: I very much hope that this Assembly will go down in history as an Assembly of peace. That’s a tall order given the current developments in the world. And if this really does happen, it will be the only achievement, regardless of Serbia’s contribution, that will make me perfectly happy. But what we will try and do is to make the General Assembly more visible, more relevant, with regards to international developments. There’s a big economic crisis out there. The most important institutions, like the World Bank and the IMF [International Monetary Fund], the G8 [Group of Eight highly industrialized nations] and the G20 [Group of 20 leading economies], these big players are doing their share of work aimed at alleviating the results of the economic crisis, and trying to fix the world’s economy.

I believe there should be a consultation mechanism between the General Assembly and those institutions’ work without infringing on their mandate or scope. But a consultation mechanism so that everyone’s voice can be heard and that the material destiny of all the nations and the world can be determined in a more inclusive fashion. This is one of my hopes. One of the issues I have to deal with is the implementation of the Rio+20 agenda. We’ve been already working very hard with the relevant colleagues and countries, as well as the Secretariat, on putting together a plan as to how we approach it and do it but this is certainly going to be a big chunk of our work.

Mr. Jeremić addresses a Security Council meeting, during his service as his country's Foreign Minister. (May 2012) UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

In the past, the General Assembly was successful in trying to include civil society representatives in its deliberations. With some notable exceptions, we haven’t been very successful in trying to draw on the wisdom and experience of global think tanks and institutes on how to move forward, on how to help achieve the desired and agreed goals. I intend to reach out to these players during my tenure and find a way to involve them in finding solutions to some of the current problems facing mankind.

UN News Centre: How does your youth affect your relationships with colleagues and your stature on the world stage?

Vuk Jeremić: This is not the first time I get to occupy a post in which my age is something that raises eyebrows. I became the Foreign Minister of Serbia at the age of 32. This is not the first time I’m going through this experience and sometimes it’s very useful because a lot of people are surprised when they get to meet me and they give me more attention. I was a frequent visitor to the United Nations so I’ve had the privilege to meet and become friends with a lot of people who are involved in the works of the United Nations and international diplomacy. So, they do know that I’m young but they know me or at least of me because of my previous posts but I don’t think it’s going to carry too much shock value in the context of the next 12 months.

UN News Centre: What message does it send to the world and to young people around the globe to see someone your age leading the General Assembly?

Mr. Jeremić is congratulated after his election as President of the Assembly's 67th session. (June 2012) UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Vuk Jeremić: I really believe that the time to engage in a thing that you really like and that you’re really interested in is as early on as possible. When I was a minister I allowed a lot of young people, some of them straight from university, to enter into the ministry – some of them were even part of my team – to be able to get experience early on, to engage in policy debates and so on. So, I encourage young people to engage in what they like. It would be very, very wrong to think of diplomacy as a field reserved for gray hairs. Of course, experience is important like it is in every field in which you aspire to achieve top results. But the earlier you engage, the better and the more efficient for your future career it will be. So, if you’re interested in international relations, I would encourage you to engage early on. In my experience, at least, there’s no better place to learn than the United Nations and there is no place more open than the General Assembly. So, I invite everyone who is interested to come and listen to the debates and proceedings of the General Assembly.

UN News Centre: How do think your new demanding job will affect your work-life balance in the coming months?

Vuk Jeremić: I’ll probably be in a much better situation to answer this question in a few months down the road. I haven’t started yet, properly. I guess it’s going to be very demanding but I’m no stranger to such situations. We’ve gone through some very turbulent periods in our part of the world where I had a task to deal with in foreign affairs. So I’m not afraid of the workload. Although I visited hundreds of times, I have never lived in New York – and it’s an interesting place to be.

In an interview with the UN News Centre, Mr. Jeremić about the global environment in which the General Assembly will function over the next 12 months. Credit: UN Webcast

UN News Centre: Given your busy schedule, it does not seem like you will have much time for tennis?

Vuk Jeremić: I did make it to the US Open this year. I made it to the US Open last year as well. But the next US Open will be the one when I’m the sitting PGA and I’m going to be there. Tennis has taken up a very special part of my life. I’m actually the President of the Tennis Federation of Serbia, and in Serbia tennis is a very important thing. There are some countries where soccer is the most important thing and there are some countries where basketball is very important. In the last few years, tennis has become very, very important for Serbia. And I did ditch my hat as Foreign Minister in order to devote all my focus and attention to the job of the President of the General Assembly but what I didn’t ditch was the hat of the President of the Tennis Federation of Serbia. I’m still the President of the Tennis Federation of Serbia and I intend to stay the President of the Tennis Federation of Serbia and attend, God willing, a lot of US Opens in the future.

UN News Centre: Can we expect an Secretary-General versus President of the General Assembly tennis match anytime soon?

Vuk Jeremić: I actually talked about tennis with the Secretary-General today. He’s a very good friend. We had a chance to talk to each other on a number of occasions. He was my last visitor in Serbia in my capacity as Foreign Minister this July. We talked about tennis. I keep insisting that I will take him to the US Open first; so the first step is going to be to take him to watch the match and then the next stage is going to be to take him to play with me. But I understand he is a soccer fan!

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