Jan Eliasson, President of the General Assembly and a serving Minister of Foreign Affairs

Jan Eliasson is one of the leading players of diplomacy and foreign relations. We may briefly say that he has served as the Swedish State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Sweden’s Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, the Secretary-General’s Personal Representative on Iran/Iraq, Chairman of the UN General Assembly’s working group on emergency relief, Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and Chairman of the UN Trust Fund for South Africa. He was also appointed as the first United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. During his tenure, he was involved in crises in Somalia, Sudan, Mozambique and the Balkans, and also undertook initiatives concerning landmines, conflict prevention and humanitarian action. In addition to all this, he was part of the UN mediation missions in the war between Iran and Iraq, headed by the former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and, more recently, Mr. Eliasson served as a mediator in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict on behalf of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In June 2005 Jan Eliasson was elected President of the sixtieth session of the United Nations General Assembly and in March 2006 he was appointed Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs. Never in the history of the United Nations has the President of the General Assembly also been a serving Minister of Foreign Affairs.
During his Presidency, the General Assembly has been working intensively on reforming the United Nations, and the results are impressive. We should mention that already on 15 December 2005 the General Assembly adopted, by consensus, Resolution A/RES/60/124, upgrading the former Central Emergency Revolving Fund to the Central Emergency Response Fund; establishing the Optional Protocol on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel; establishing the Human Rights Council, the Peace-Building Commission and, just before he went on official travel with the Queen and King of Sweden in his capacity as Foreign Minister in July, the General Assembly voted a resolution on the Management Reforms of the Secretariat.
Q: You are the President of the General Assembly (GA) and in March you were appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden. How do you manage two such challenging jobs at the same time?
It is hard to combine them. I was appointed President of the General Assembly in March and started my work as Foreign Minister in April. I must say that these last months have been extremely busy. We have had a very busy agenda for the United Nations as the reform negotiations have proceeded. Then, of course, as Foreign Minister you have to be involved in working for Sweden, in the European Union and, unfortunately, you are also expected to take a stand, comment on, make statements to the media on world events, etc. Like nown the situation Middle East. So it has been a very busy time.
Q: How many hours do you work a day?
Probably around fourteen hours a day and unfortunately far too many at the weekends too, especially during the negotiations of the Human Rights Council. That was quite difficult.
Q: Have you always been a devotee of the United Nations?
I’m very much a student of the United Nations. I was influenced by a person who is very important in the history of the United Nationsn Dag Hammarskj?ld. He actually died on my twenty-first birthday, 17 September 1961. I remember thinking at the time that I really wanted to work for the United Nations one day. Then, of course, I followed a regular career in the Swedish Foreign Service. In 1980 I was asked by Prime Minister Olof Palme to help him mediate between Iran and Iraq, so that is how I became involved with the UN. I became Swedish Ambas sador to the UN in 1988, then the first Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and finally I came back as the President of the GA. I have been on missions for the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to Iraq. Throughout my twenty-five years with the UN, Dag Hammarskj?ld has always been my role model. This does not mean that I am an uncritical friend of the United Nations. I am attached to the idea of multilateral collaboration, but I think we need to reform the organization. I am quite aware of criticism of the UN, not least in the United States. The Food-for-Oil issue did tremendous damage to the image of the United Nations in world public opinion.
I personally feel very sad, sometimes even frustrated, that the United Nations has not done more in genocide situations, such as the massacres in Srebrenica, Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia. We have stood by passively while people have been slaughtered. I think this undermines the moral authority of the United Nations and I said so in my speech when I was elected President. Of course, this is not a General Assembly issue, it is more a Security Council issue, but I think the United Nations needs to take collective responsibility.
In other words, « Yes » the United Nations is a very important body and I think it symbolizes our dreams and aspirations for global security, development, overcoming disease and poverty, and respecting of human rights. There are three pillars that are absolutely essential for the United Nations: no security without development; no development without security; and none of the above without respect for human rights.
But we need to reform the United Nations and that’s why I have spent so much time, energy and commitment on the reforms of the United Nations this past year. I think we have achieved quite a lot, despite a complicated and difficult international situation.
Q: After working so hard to convince countries about the reform of the United Nations, how do you find the necessary drive to keep moving ahead?
It has been difficult, especially if you have 191 Member States (and since last week, 192 as Montenegro joined). You still want to achieve a consensus or as broad a support as possible, requiring a lot of negotiations and a lot of patience. I have devised a negotiation system which I think has been relatively effective. I appointed two co-chairson each issue. They spend many months holding consultations and negotiations. When they cannot advance any further on some outstanding issues, that is when I come in. I would not have survived if I had been involved during the whole course of negotiations. These two co-chairsnnormally one from the south and one from the northnare two collegial ambassadors who work well together and have a good standing in the Organization. When they come to me and say here are the outstanding issues, that is where I start. I enjoy finding formulas that can work. You feel your way, you bring in other people, you meet in smaller groups, and issues are hammered out.
The highest responsibility is when, at the end of the process, you have to produce a text. The night before the meeting of the Human Rights Council, for instance, I had to find the right balance in a proposal, because I knew that once the text is presented it would be difficult to change it. If we change it, we open Pandora’s Box. We might then be involved again in long-term negotiations. The most difficult phase is at the end of these consultations when you ask yourself: « Is this fair and if it is fair will it obtain the consensus or the broadest possible support. » That is the most difficult moment.
Q: Looking back on your career, you were the first Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and now you are also noted in history for the Peace-Building Commission, the Human Rights Council… What, on a personal level, has given you most satisfaction?
During this past year, I think the most satisfying negotiations were two very important institutional reforms. Creating something new is usually very difficult. Concerning the Peace-Building Commission and the Human Rights Council, I felt tremendous satisfaction and gratitude to my colleagues, my co-chairs and my staff. Beyond that, this also showed that the General Assembly was a body capable of taking decisions. The GA has played a relatively anonymous role in the international arena, whereas the Security Council has always been in the forefront. With the Human Rights Council and the Peace-Building Commission we put ourselves on the map. The day after both the Peace-Building Commission and the Human Rights Council, I had a strange sense that they stood taller than they had before n there were a sense of pride. I felt very much that: « We’ve done it. » People told us that we had really achieved something. It is very satisfying that in today’s world, full of mistrust and suspicion, that we have taken these decisions with the broadest possible consensus.
When I look back to my earlier life, there are two other causes that I have been very committed to. One is humanitarian. When I was Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, we saved lives by opening up humanitarian corridors. Hundreds of thousands of people were stuck in Southern Sudan and were in danger of starving to death if we did not do something. I changed the concept: instead of negotiating a ceasefire (which is a military and political concept), we created humanitarian corridors, which were much easier because they did not imply any political and military aspects. By opening these corridors we opened up twenty-nine air-strips and also by using the Nile we managed to save thousands of human lives. This operation gave me tremendous satisfaction.
But — and here comes the second pointnit was also a tremendous disappointment that humanitarian aid always arrived too late. Jan Egeland will confirm that. In Somalia I found people dying in great numbers right in front of me. The same thing happened in Sudan and Mozambique. In Angola we were not able to enter the most dangerous areas. I felt such frustration for the delay and this contributed to my leaving the United Nations in 1994. I felt that we had to do more serious work, so I concentrated on prevention. In Uppsala from 1994 to 1995 I became a professor in order to study, research and write about prevention. So I concentrated on prevention, the need to act early in conflicts. I subsequently became Secretary of State (the number two) in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sweden and introduced the Swedish Pre-vention programme. If Sweden or Norway had introduced the prevention programme on its own, it would not have had much impact. The good thing about it was that it became a European Union Programme in 2001. That gave me tremendous satisfaction as I could then review my frustration and anger about arriving too late in Somalia and the need for humanitarian action. I could compare my academic life, my period as a diplomat and an official with the existence of the European Prevention Programme. So these are the two things that are to me the most rewarding: the opening of the humanitarian corridors for Somalia; and then in Gothenburg, my home town, on 15 June 2001 holding the European Union Program-me on Prevention. I then felt that I had come full circle.
Q: Do you think the United Nations will take up the prevention programme?
The United Nations have already done so, but it is going rather slowly. I hope we will have a debate on the issue in September 2006 before I leave, because I feel so strongly about it. But, it has taken far too long for us to develop the concept.
One great step forward was the declaration in the final document of the September summit — the responsibility to protect. That is a milestone. It says that each government has responsibility for its own population. In other words, it must protect its own people from ethnic cleansing, mass killing and genocide. We have established the principle and that is a very great achievement. In practice we still have much to do.
Q: Earlier, you compared the role of the General Assembly with that of the Security Council. There has been much talk of giving the General Assembly more power. In your capacity as President of the GA, do you think they will obtain more power?
Many colleagues are telling me that the GA has achieved a higher standing and we have established our influence to a degree that many wanted to see. I hope that this trend will continue. I think it is very important to have a good balance between the different principal organs of the United Nations. Both the Security Council and the GA will gain.
One discussion which is going on right now is the selection process for the next Secretary-General. The President of the Security Council has been briefing me every month since February and I pass this information on to the GA. The GA would like to play a greater role in this selection. The Charter says in Article 97 that the GA appoints the SG upon the recommendations of the Security Council, but the GA wants to play more active role in this consultation. Fortunately, the Security Council seems to realize that, indeed; they must have more contact and dialogue with the GA. What will be the outcome in the end I do not know, but I think it is a healthy trend.
More dialogue is better both for the SC and the GA. But it is definitely better for the next Secretary-General, who will have stronger legitimacy.
Q: You mentioned the selection for the next SG. As there is no job description, I wonder whether the GA and SG have established certain qualities that they would like to see in the next SG.
You will, of course, hear different things. What is stated in the Charter is that he is the chief administrative officer, so he has great responsibility about how the Secretariat functions. On the other hand, I think that there is a general recognition that the person who symbolizes the whole United Nations system should also have standing in the area of diplomacy and foreign relations. This comes out quite clearly in the discussions. The majority of the SC also agree that the next SG should come from Asia or a region that has not been favoured.
Q: Looking back, you have achieved a lot during your presidency.
Well, people are telling me that I should be relatively satisfied. I was a naval officer and I believe that you can never achieve anything if you do not have a sense of collective responsibility and team spirit. I was the captain of a destroyer. When the sailing is easy, you can stand up on the bridge and look like you are in complete control as you enter harbour. However, when you are out on the high seas, then it does not matter if you have brass on your hat or not-it’s the engineer, the look-out, the radar operator that matters. You are so dependent on others.
When you invite people in and say to them « we must leave this room having achieved somethingnit’s a matter of our professionalism, our devotion and our commitment to the United Nations » and if you feel that they want to contributenthen it works.
I also see my role as a mediator. The tensions between G7 and the countries in the North, the Secretariat-are sometimes palpable. Then you have to try to calm these tensions down. At least, not make them worse.
Diplomacy for me does not mean providing the answer to the question « what? ». The beauty of the profession is more about providing answers to the questions « how and when? »; it’s about timing.
My job here has been very much « how should we do it and when? ». That was why I was so upset when I had Jan Egeland’s job. When a disaster broke out you had to go around with your hat in hand asking for money, while people were dying in South Asia, in Africa. You were asking yourself « can we send 100 helicopters, do we have any money »nand all this while people were dying. In natural disasters most people die within 64 hours. Today, we have a fund with already US$254 million in it and we are aiming for another half a billion. This means that if there is another huge disaster you do not even have to ask about the price tag, you just send out everything that’s needed to save lives. We did that in mid-December.
So the « what? » is there and when you know what « what? » is, the great challenge becomes the « how and when? »ntiming is so important in diplomacy. You can make the common mistake of doing things too late, but it also happens that you do it too early. When the moment is not right, it might be difficult not to act and you do not get a second chance.
There were a couple of times when we were close to failure, but then you cannot give up. You just have to give it another try, approach it from another angle.
Q: How do you mobilize the people working with you?
First of all, you should give them credit. Everybody wants to be recognized and they deserve to be recognized, so I always point to my co-chairs, my team. I consult with them and listen to them as much as possible. It is also very healthy for yourself if you can delegate authority. I have a great chief of staff and I think this team is wonderful. We meet every morning at 9.15, we sit for 30 minutes and discuss. We are completely open-no secretsnand we talk about all we need. I often invite people pose questions and to criticize. You must question and be open to criticism. You know Andersen’s fairy tale about the little boy and the emperor who had no clothes. I tell everybody to behave like that little boy.
It has been a fascinating period, and probably the greatest experience of my life. I feel so strongly for the United Nations, and let me say again that I’m not an uncritical friend. I think we are now facing a test of multilateralism. The next few years will decide whether we do indeed take the multilateral road or we become inward looking. In this latter scenario, we will encourage protectionism and isolationnlook how terrible the Doha Round looks right now, look at the political debate in European countries and also in the United States where the outside world is seen as a threat. If you start looking at the outside world as a threat rather than as a potential and a promise in the day and age of globalization-what kind of world will we have? We will have tremendous tensions with strong processes of globalization and at the same time a political reaction against it.
That is why we have adopt the multilateral approaches and that is why we have to tune our instrument, and make the organization better through reform. There is so much I would like to do to make this organization more focused and more functional. This is not only for reasons of efficiency, for I know that we are facing a test of multilateralism. For many countries like Sweden and Norway — small and medium-sized countries multilateral approaches come naturally. This is because-as Prime Minister Olaf Palme told mena well-functioning UN is our first line of defence. Nevertheless, for the larger countries, such as the United States, to reach that same conclusion it is not so easy because they can always do things unilaterally or in coalitions with those who are willing. That is why I find this reform process so important and that is also why I am relatively satisfied. At least we have carried out institutional reforms and proved that the GA can play a role.