Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has chosen Jan Eliasson, a former Swedish foreign minister with years of experience as a key United Nations mediator and humanitarian relief director, to be his new deputy secretary-general. Eliasson, 71, was twice ambassador to the United States and is well known is Washington. He takes office on July 1.
Eliasson’s appointment was among the first, and highest-ranking, of Ban’s second-term team to be announced, along with a new chief of staff, Susana Malcorra of Argentina, who has been under secretary-general for peacekeeping field support. She replaces Vijay Nambiar of India, who has become special adviser for Myanmar. Eliasson will take over from Asha-Rose Migiro of Tanzania as Ban fulfills his pledge to reshuffle his top-level staff.
With a long list of successful international jobs to his credit, Eliasson may be best remembered by many for his skillful work as president of the UN General Assembly in 2005-2006, when he steered numerous difficult issues firmly and quickly through a normally slow-moving and contentious body. Under his direction, the discredited Human Rights Commission was abolished and the Human Rights Council created.
Under Eliasson’s watch, a summit meeting of government leaders in 2005 also adopted the “responsibility to protect” doctrine to shield populations from mass crimes and abuses, which is now in the news because of its application to the Libyan crisis and NATO intervention, and the question as to why no similar moves have been made to save lives in Syria, where the UN reported recently that well over 7,500 people have died in the last year.
Eliasson was born into a working-class family in Goteborg, Sweden, in September 1940 and made his first visit to the US through an American Field Service exchange in 1957-1958. A graduate of the Swedish Naval Academy in 1962, he later earned a master’s degree in economics from the Goteborg School of Economics and Commercial Law. His wife, Kerstin Eliasson, is a former Swedish secretary of state for education and science. They have three grown children.
Extensive international work
In a long diplomatic career, Eliasson has been Sweden’s ambassador to the UN twice, as well as to the US, France, Germany and Zimbabwe, where he opened the first Swedish embassy in the newly independent country in 1980. He was named foreign minister of Sweden in 2006, while he was president of the General Assembly.
As an international actor, he was part of a UN mediation team from 1980 to 1986 dealing with the Iran-Iraq war. From 1988 to 1992, he continued his active work in the Persian Gulf area as a special UN envoy.
In 1991, Eliasson led the General Assembly committee on emergency relief, the first of several humanitarian assignments that led ultimately to his appointment as the UN’s first under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs in 1992. In that job, he was involved in relief operations in the Balkans, Mozambique, Somalia and Sudan.
Given his background in crisis areas, Eliasson is positioned to assist Ban in some of the same conflict zones. 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.
In other changes in Ban’s office, it was announced on March 2 that two advisers, Robert Orr, an American, and Kim Won-soo, from Korea, will move to new posts in the UN. Orr, the highest-level American in Ban’s inner circle, will be involved in creating public-private partnerships to bolster the UN’s work globally, and Kim will lead a team working on Secretariat reform.
More new appointments are soon to follow, the UN says.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.