Welcome to the United Nations. It's your world.
Back to top

Eelco Nicolaas Van Kleffens (Netherlands)

Elected President of the ninth session of the General Assembly

Photo of Eelco Nicolaas Van Kleffens

"Frisia non cantat"- " Friesland does not sing," said Tacitus in a reference to the characteristics of the northern Netherlands provinces of Friesland, whose people, while they are widely recognized for their intelligence, are also said to be among the most stubborn and tenacious in the world.

The great historian might reconsider his verdict were he to be present at the 1954 session of the United Nations General Assembly. For the session is meeting under the Presidency of one of "Frisia's" most distinguished sons, Dr. Eelco van Kleffens of the Netherlands; and if past achievement in a succession of important international assignments is any criterion, the Assembly may well have a leader who, even if he does not "sing," is likely to give a notably brilliant performance.

In his speech accepting the Presidency, Dr. van Kleffens told the Assembly that what the world expected from it in the unprecedentedly serious situation brought about by the threat of the thermo-nuclear bomb was "a contribution to general peace on a basis of live and let live."

Some Idea of the extent of the new President's own unflagging contribution to world peace may be gathered from a glance at his life. Philologists and believers in omens, incidentally, may be interested to learn that the literal translation of his name is "cliff-ness," "ness" meaning "a high point in the country," used as a vantage place in case of Hood and other disasters.

Elco Nicolaas Van Kleffens was born in the little Frisian town of Heerenveen, on November 17, 1914. He will thus celebrate his sixtieth birthday during his tenure of the highest office in the United Nations. His parents were Henricus Cato van Kleffens, District Attorney at Heerenveen, who later became District Advocate-general at Arnhem, and Jeannette Frésine Veenhoven.

Soon after taking his Doctor of Laws degree at Leyden University, with a thesis entitled "Relations between the Netherlands and Japan, 1605-1918," the young lawyer embarked upon the diplomatic career which has brought him renown in his own country and throughout the world.

After two years in the Secretariat of the League of Nations, Dr. van Kleffens entered the Netherlands Foreign Office, where he occupied a succession of increasingly responsible posts, culminating in his appointment as Foreign Minister in the crucial month of August 1939, a few weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War. He served in this capacity throughout the war years, when the Dutch Government was in exile in London, and it was during this period that he wrote "Juggernaut over Holland," a graphic account of the nazi invasion of his country.

Among other things, the book tells of the dramatic escape to England by seaplane of the Foreign Minister and his wife, when the Cabinet decided that some of its members must attempt to leave the country for Allied territory, so that the voice of the lawful Government of the Netherlands should not be silenced.

As well as being published in England and the United States, the book was smuggled into occupied Holland, where it ran into forty-six clandestine editions and gave considerable moral support to the Dutch people in their time of tribulation. It also made a very concrete contribution to their betterment, since it was circulated among members of the Amsterdam stock exchange at a rate of ten guilders an hour, the money going to the funds of the Dutch resistance.

Early Concern with United Nations

Dr. van Kleffens remained as Foreign Minister until February 1946, when he resigned in order to become his country's representative on the United Nations' Security Council. He retained his Cabinet rank, however, being appointed Minister without Portfolio.

The new President's connection with the United Nations dates from its earliest days. in 1945, he was Chairman of the Netherlands delegation to the San Francisco Conference, at which the United Nations Charter was drawn up. He also served as Chairman of his country's delegation during the first part of the General Assembly's first session, held in London in January 1946, and as Vice-Chairman during the second part of the session, which took place at Flushing Meadow, New York, in the autumn of the same year.

After eighteen months as permanent representative to the United Nations, Dr. van Kleffens was appointed Netherlands Ambassador to Washington in July 1947. Here he remained until 1950 when, at his own request, made because of his wife's health, he was transferred to Lisbon, where he served ever since as Netherlands Minister to Portugal. Upon his appointment to Lisbon, he was also made Minister of State, one of the highest posts the Netherlands can bestow. The office is a lifetime one, and its occupants act as Advisers to the Throne.

During his years at the Dutch Foreign Office, Dr. van Kleffens' work included numerous vital undertakings in many different parts of the world. He was one of the signatories of the original Benelux union between Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg in 1944, and two years earlier, in 1942, he played an active part in two Washington conferences at which Allied plans for the prosecution of the war in the Pacific ware prepared.

No account of Dr. van Kleffens' career would be complete without a reference to one of his most cherished institutions, the Academy of international Law at The Hague, where students from all over the world gather each summer to attend courses in international law and related subjects by world-famous experts. in the early 1930% Dr. van Kleffens was appointed Secretary-General of the Academy, and he has remained a member of its Board, or "Curatorium," ever since.

A Philosophy for Relations

The new President's wide experience has, of course, given him considerable insight into the conduct of international relations. in a recent letter to a leading Washington editor, he summed up his own beliefs in these matters as follows-and it will be noted that the credo is founded upon a "practical rule" for putting into effect the "live and let live" basis of which he spoke in his acceptance address to the General Assembly.

"I have a very simple philosophy in this respect," he wrote, "the old Roman trias of 'honeste vivere; alterurn non laedere; suum cuique tribuere' (to live honorably; to give offence to none; and to give each his due). And I do not call that merely an abstract moral or legal principle, but a practical rule for living and letting live, capable of being applied by states and individuals alike, and perfectly valid even from the point of view of enlightened self-interest. It not only does not stand in the way of any international organization, but leaves open every possibility in this direction."

Dr. van Kleffens' faith in the possibilities of the international organization whose highest office he now occupies was emphasized at a press conference which he held at United Nations Headquarters a few days before the Assembly opened.

"It is nice to see an institution grow and develop when you have been active in bringing it into the world," he said. "What was hope and vision in 1945 at San Francisco is now a reality. Who can imagine the world today without the United Nations? It is as essential to our time as radio in the home. It is one of those things that would have to be invented if it were not there-we can no longer do without it."

Dr. van Kleffens went on to stress the responsibility of governments for making proper use of the machinery of the United Nations. Pointing out that the United Nations "is no more and no less then an instrument," he said: "What it accomplishes or does not accomplish is a matter for the governments. A vacuum cleaner, if no one uses it, just goes to rust in an attic. The people to whom we should look to make it what its founders wanted it to be are the governments."

The new President also paid a high tribute to the functions of the press. He could not imagine the United Nations working "without a well-informed press," he said, and he added that if he were elected, the door to the President's office "will always be open" to reporters.

So much for a brief outline of the new President's public career. On the personal side, he is a man of conservative tastes, finding his chief pleasure in his home life. in 1935, Dr. van Kleffens married Miss Margaret Horstman, daughter of a Dutch father and an American mother. As well as an official apartment in Lisbon, the Minister and his wife have a country house, about twenty-five miles from the capital, where they spend as much time as possible, and where they like to entertain their friends in an informal manner.

A House in Almoçagême Situated in the tiny village of Almo-gag8me, near Sintra, the house is called Casal de Santa Filomena, "casal" being the Portuguese word for "married couple's house." Much time and thought has gone into the renovation of Santa Filomena, which was in a dilapidated and primitive condition when Dr. and Mme. van Kleffens bought it some three years ago. Today, however, it is in every sense of the word a perfect home: unpretentious, comfortable and charming, and with a garden into which Mme. van Kleffens has put a considerable amount of personal labor, the Minister's contribution being weeding and catching snails.

Other favorite pastimes are sailing and walking, and on week-ends Dr. van Kleffens' lithe, athletic figure is often to be seen striding over the rough, hilly paths near Almoçagême, followed by the bounding black form of the family poodle, Johnson (Jansen in Dutch). Johnson, incidentally, is not only one of Dr. and Mme. van Kleffens' most treasured possessions, he is also something of an international celebrity in his own -right. in New York as well as in Washington this high-spirited creature enlivened many gatherings both formal and -informal, and it will doubtless be a matter of some disappointment to his numerous admirers here that he has not accompanied his master and mistress across the Atlantic this time.

Whenever official duties allow, the Minister welcomes the chance of a quiet evening at home, reading or listening to classical music with his wife. He is an avid reader, especially of history, biography, law and sociology. He is also a highly accomplished linguist, being equally at home in four languages - Dutch, English, French and German-with Portuguese now a close fifth, although he admits that this is one of the most difficult tongues he has so far tackled. Perhaps as a corollary to his linguistic abilities, he is an adept at "Scrabble"; indeed one close associate describes him as "a wizard" at the game. Curiously enough, however, despite his precise and brilliant legal mind, he is practically allergic to mathematics in all forms.

In Difficulties, a Challenge

He is neat, orderly and meticulous in his personal as well as his official life, and anything he undertakes is carried through with unsparing thoroughness. A kindred characteristic is his remarkable resourcefulness. All problems, from minor daily difficulties to complex international issues, are met with a ready ingenuity and an indefatigable determination. The harder the problem, the greater the challenge, and the more Dr. van Kleffens welcomes a chance to solve it. He is helped inestimably in this by a quiet but unfailing sense of humor, which is magically effective in smoothing potentially thorny paths.

In his manner, the new President is quiet and unassuming. But as his many friends have good reason to know, beneath this unobtrusive exterior lies a wealth of wisdom and wit, and a warmth which brings him the enthusiastic loyalty of everyone who works for and with him.

He is also phenomenally observant, with an eye for detail and a power of retaining it which often astonishes his associates. Add to this an exceptionally lucid mind, with an outstanding ability for concise formulation and balanced judgment, and it becomes apparent that the Assembly has a helmsman whose expert handling of the wheel may well make the 1954 session a memorably successful voyage.

It also seems that Frisia does, after all, have a good deal to "sing" about.

404 | United Nations



Please check the URL to make sure you entered it correctly. You can also use our search or visit the UN Home page.