By Ramesh Jaura
The outgoing United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson has urged world leaders to stop dividing humanity into “us and them”, and said that it is important “to realize that there is an element of spirituality needed in what we do”.
In an extensive and in-depth interview with UN News, he described the “Syria tragedy” as his “greatest disappointment” and obliquely criticised the Security Council for having missed an opportunity to adopt a binding resolution four years ago.
Asked what advice he would have for his successor, Amina Mohammed, Eliasson said: “I don’t think she needs much advice! She . . . has worked in the UN intensely. She is one of the architects, one of the most important architects, behind the Sustainable Development Goals. She is also very well anchored in government, which I was also before I came to the UN, except that for her it was Nigeria and for me it was Sweden. So we have similar backgrounds.”
He added: “My advice for her is to stick very strongly to her basic strength – namely the credibility and standing she has in the world with the Sustainable Development Goals. If these Goals can now be translated to national planning, she will have done a historic job.”
Eliasson hopes that she, together with the new Secretary-General (António Guterres), “will also see the beauty of working together on peace and security, and development and human rights, as one, and accepting, what I would call the ‘horizontal approach'”, which he said is “in her from the beginning”.
Expanding on his “departing message for world leaders” requested by UN News, the outgoing Deputy Secretary-General said: “I am very worried about this trend of identifying yourself in contrast to others, rather than together with others.
“Whether it is your religious belonging, or your ethnic group, or your tribe in some countries, that trend means that you are actually undermining the equal worth of all human beings, because you easily consider the ‘us’ superior to the ‘them’. And that feeds polarization and division, and then you are more prone, in that situation, to be receptive to fearmongering, and even selling hatred.”
He added: “In today’s world we don’t need more hatred, we don’t need more fear. We need more hope, and realization that we live together. The most important word in today’s world is, in fact, ‘together’. And that is also the name of a campaign that UN is now leading to help make nations accept this need to fight xenophobia. That is the most basic message that translates itself into how we, in the future, deal with migration and refugees, how we deal with development, how we deal with root causes to end conflicts earlier.”
Referring to spiritual aspects, apparently close to his heart, Eliasson said: “I would hope to have revived Dag Hammarskjöld’s tradition of pointing to culture, and music in this case, and the spiritual dimension of the work at the UN, and to realize that there is an element of spirituality needed in what we do.”
Like Hammarskjöld, the second UN Secretary-General (10 April 1953 – 18 September 1961), Eliasson is a Swedish national. Hammarskjöld died in a crash in Northern Rhodesia then, Zambia now. And this happened to be the day after his 21st birthday. He was “a great hero” when Eliasson grew up.
So he felt very deeply that he wanted to do something for international cooperation, for peace and development, and human rights. “I think at that time I was heading for the foreign ministry and the UN.”
When Hammarskjöld’s book ‘Markings’ came out a couple of years after his death, Eliasson read it at the age of “26 or 27”, and he thought it was a bit mystic. “I didn’t connect as much as I now do, after many years,” he told UN News.
Meanwhile, ‘Markings’ gives him great consolation and great inspiration. “I had a wonderful experience at the UN, one of my most informal ones, when 500 hundred people came to the ECOSOC hall to listen to me read parts from ‘Markings’ which have the meant the most to me, and the Swedish pianist Per Tengstrand played Beethoven, Bach, Grieg, Chopin, in between my readings. I don’t think I’ve had such an attentive audience! I still have people coming to me, and saying they will never forget that moment.”
Building up on that experience, Eliasson said: “We have to go deeper. We have to find the deeper sources of energy. If we get stuck in daily routines and not get back to the basic values, and these include basic human sentiments that come out from music or culture or art, then we are losing the beauty of life, and the beauty of how we can work. I think we should allow ourselves to let that dimension come out stronger because the UN is a very special organization.”
UN News wanted to know what historians would say about his contribution to international affairs, Eliasson said it would be presumptuous for him to speculate on that, and added: “I hope that (outgoing Secretary-General) Ban Ki-moon) will be and should be remembered for his pioneering work on the climate change agreement, that that could be the turning point to avoid the existential threat to humanity.”
Eliasson said, he had played a more modest role on that issue; it was Ban who was leading that. But added that his contribution to Sustainable Development Goals and the UN initiative Human Rights Upfront “when we lifted and strengthened the human rights pillar, and put it on par with peace and security and development work” would be remembered.
Eliasson was appointed as Deputy Secretary-General of the UN in July 2012. What were “the greatest disappointments” for him in that post? The Syria tragedy, he said. “Since the first day I arrived, I have worked on this issue. And I have felt huge disappointments – several times we have not been able to find a solution, an end to this conflict.”
Elisasson added: “In the summer of 2012, we had a chance: the Security Council could have had a resolution, a binding resolution, on the basis of (former Secretary-General) Kofi Annan’s negotiation at the end of June 2012 – we missed that opportunity at a time when there was no ISIS, no Daesh, and at a time you had a decent opposition, well-formed and well-coordinated.
“They could have sat down, in line with the transitional arrangement that was planned, and started writing a constitution and then had elections… That was four years ago, in the meantime hundreds of thousands of people have been killed; refugees are in neighbouring countries and de-stabilizing world political conditions.”
Elisasson was born “in the midst of the Second World War, in humble circumstances far from the trappings of international diplomacy”. And yet he rose to become the second-highest official of the United Nations.
UN News: What comes to mind when he reflects on that? Eliasson: “The feeling I have when you describe this is simply gratitude. I am extremely grateful that I was given this opportunity, that I was born in a country where, at that time, it was possible for a person from my background to have an education.”
His father had seven years of schooling; his mother, just four – every second day, in the countryside where she lived. “My aunt died of tuberculosis, more or less from a lack of food, the right food, and the cold little hut they lived in, in the province of Halland in Sweden,” Eliasson recalled.
“For me, then, to be the first one in the family to have that opportunity, I feel almost as though I owe it to hundreds of years of predecessors in the family who never had a chance. They were working in a way that was unbelievable, under conditions that were horrible,” he added.
“And now, I was the first one to have that chance. My parents didn’t really show great expectations, but I knew they had them, of course. Their dreams were translated to me and to my brother. So I had a tremendous motivation to win, to be the best at everything, whether it was sports or school. I always applied to the most difficult courses. I had this sense of competition built into me, both with negative and positive sides to it.”
On national level, Eliasson served as his country’s Foreign Minister, Ambassador to the United States, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and even Ambassador to the United Nations.
On an international level, he also served as the President of the 60th session of the UN General Assembly; the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Darfur; the Secretary-General’s Personal Representative for Iran/Iraq and the first UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.
His areas of focus included operations in Africa and the Balkans, as well as initiatives on landmines, conflict prevention and humanitarian action. In the early 1980s, Eliasson was part of the UN mediation missions in the war between Iran and Iraq, and he served as a mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in the early 1990s.