Jan Eliasson has been the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations since July 2012, the second in command after Ban Ki-moon. Eliasson, 73, is a former Swedish foreign minister and was ambassador to the United States twice, among other foreign postings. He was also president of the UN General Assembly and a key UN mediator and humanitarian relief director before rejoining the UN a year and a half ago. He spoke at length during an interview several months ago on the evolving responsibilities of the deputy secretary-general post, which is less than two decades old, and how he carries out his portfolio of political affairs, development and rule of law. Here is an edited and abridged transcript of the interview.
Q: You are the fourth holder of the position of UN deputy secretary-general, which was created in 1997 and previously held by two women and one man. How do you see the position has changed over the years?
A: When it was instituted, Louise Fréchette got the job [under Secretary-General Kofi Annan]. I had been under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. I was asked to coordinate the humanitarian actors — the World Food Program, Unicef, UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees], partly UNDP [Development Program] — and I remember that I told the secretary-general, who was then Boutros Boutros-Ghali, that we actually needed someone who had the authority to bring the different parts together and get the muscle to coordinate. Under the hierarchical system of the United Nations, [I saw a need] to look for a level above under secretary-general. It never happened at that time, but I felt that I had to get the coordination done by persuasion and the logic of doing things. But I didn’t really have the formal position to say this is the way we should do things.
Q: Certainly, there have been four radically different office-holders: Louise Fréchette, a Canadian; Mark Malloch Brown of Britain; Asha-Rose Migiro of Tanzania; and yourself. How would you characterize the role and its function on a daily basis? And how do you present your role to the public and within the UN?
A: I can’t characterize them because I wasn’t serving here, except for the time when I was president of the General Assembly and Mark Malloch Brown was deputy secretary-general. He had just come over from UNDP. He was very colorful in his different positions. He and I had a very good relationship. He came down to my office every second Friday or so, he and I alone. He was to me a very crucial actor in how we plan for different initiatives, such as what is now the Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council. He was a person with some authority and with some muscles when he wanted.
Q: What approach or style do you take in your functions as deputy secretary-general?
A: The functions should be seen in two contexts, the internal and the external. For the internal, where I have put most of the emphasis this first year, it has been to try to bring the different entities together, use the fact that I have a different portfolio from my predecessor, who had management and development. I have political affairs and development and rule of law. So, management is done mainly by the chef de cabinet. This means I can work in the spirit of seeing the relationship between peace and security work, development work and human rights and gather the different entities with the convening power that comes from being deputy secretary-general, the No. 2 of the organization. I can then bring people around the table on issues where I need to see the situation from different perspectives.
For instance, we will talk about post-2014 in Afghanistan. How can you plan that without bringing around the table the political side, the development side, the humanitarian side, the rule of law side? I bring them here from different sides, and I have authority to reach out and give something that hopefully would be followed on these issues. When we talked about developments in Somalia and we had a government coming into power that was really turning out to be a very constructive partner, I had meetings bringing in the political and the development and humanitarian side. It’s a healthy strategy, which I’ve mostly been chairing. You can go across the field now, looking at the Middle East crisis. Lebanon and Jordan are extremely exposed right now, because of the war in Syria, by refugees. These refugee flows not only bring in sectarian and ethnic elements, but also cause strains on the infrastructure of these countries. There is a tremendous pressure on schools, on health care, on jobs.
Q: How else can you work on infrastructure in the context of politics? And can you say more about your “internal” and “external” functions?
A: Here, I have this instrument, this tool [of my role]. I can talk to the head of the UN Economic Commission in Beirut, Rima Khalaf, to bring in her contribution. Today, I spoke to [UNDP administrator] Helen Clark. I am planning to speak to the World Bank. I spoke to my political unit this morning again, on how we can help to prevent this horrible conflict from spreading into Jordan and Lebanon, where we have both economic and, less so unfortunately, political instruments to use. I’ve been foreign minister. I’ve been very public. I’ve been very visible in my earlier functions, but I felt that this first year , I wanted to establish myself. I wanted to be seen as someone adding something, value-added, as you say, to the organization. I’m not the one to judge, but people want me more and more to have meetings of different kinds, which shows that they may need it. They may have discussions among themselves about certain issues, and then they need a neutral arbiter, and I’m there. That’s the internal.
I will be also looking into the external role. One area where I have profiled myself very strongly, also publicly, where I will probably do more, is on water and sanitation. We launched the Call for Action on sanitation, and that will be followed up. It was met with a tremendously positive reaction.
Q: And other issues you will be working on as deputy secretary-general?
A: I would hope that I would also work on certain issues that are important for the discussion in the political arena, the next generation of peacekeeping, with the challenge that we meet in Mali, for instance [the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali], and the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], where classic peacekeeping has to be combined with a more muscular presence, in some respects.
Q: You mean more muscular approaches to peacekeeping, as in the Congo mission’s intervention brigade?
A: Exactly. I have also a strong interest in prevention, mediation. I am a great friend of Article 33 of the UN Charter, on mediation, arbitration [and other peaceful means of settling disputes]. On the other hand, the person that I’m mainly here to support is the secretary-general, and he is the symbol of the organization, and I am serving at his side. I am helping him, advising him, and that for me is the most important thing — that first, we do the right thing and, as much as possible, organize ourselves to be living up to these obligations [in the UN Charter]. We have to build up good international solutions and formulas, but also to help the secretary-general in his enormously important work. He should have, and will have, most of the visibility. I give hundreds of speeches. Some are covered, some are not, and I have both internal and external roles, particularly when I’m on the road. So maybe if I’m not seen as much here in New York, I’m probably seen more when I am out there in the field.
Q: You talk a lot about the UN being measured by its impact on the lives of individuals. How do you reconcile that perspective with the UN as an instrument and hub, as it were, of 193 member states?
A: That’s the classic tension, as you know, between “We the Peoples”— the first three words [of the UN charter] — and the fact that this organization is built on the basis of cooperation between governments and states.
Q: But there has been big change in this respect, in the last 30, 40 years, between protecting civilians’ rights and sovereignty rights?
A: It is important that we not let solidarity stop at the border. I negotiated [General Assembly] Resolution 46/182 back in December 1991, which established the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, now called OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs]. It defined a mandate for the United Nations, which among other things said that neighboring countries have to help and open up borders to make humanitarian assistance possible. The second breakthrough, although it has been disputed and still controversial, is of course R2P [Responsibility to Protect], which also sends a message that sovereignty implies that you have a responsibility to protect your own population. Still, you have to accept the fact that the United Nations is a mirror, a reflection of the world as it is. We must never forget that, whether we like it or not.
Q: So you have the constant tension between sovereignty and protecting the people at the UN? What are some of those limits?
A: Our job, my job as I see it, is to diminish the distance between the world as it is and the world as it should be. That’s to me the role of an international civil servant, where you have to have heart in this work, energy in it, a combination of passion and compassion. Without passion, nothing happens. Without compassion, the wrong things happen. Realism [helps] in understanding that you cannot change the fact that [the UN] is a mirror of the world as it is. Look at Syria, for instance, and the blockage in the Security Council. But if you forget what the world should be, [as in] this document, the Charter, and the [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights, you easily become a cynic.
Q: What do you think the UN is going to look like in 10 to 15 years?
A: I think we will have more of a merger of the political and development and the human rights issues.
Q: What about the universality theme at the UN?
A: The universality theme, I think, will be there. I would hope that you would have active involvement of the emerging powers and that they are given the role and influence that they deserve to have.
Q: Emerging powers are now cut out of active roles at the UN?
A: Yes. But I would think this historic change will also be in some ways translated into the United Nations, but if you talk about reforming Security Council, that’s not the only way in which you can enhance your power.
Q: There are a tremendous number of things that can be done short of amending the UN Charter, and I don’t think the people who call for a dramatic Charter amendment understand that, yes?
A: Exactly. But above all, it’s very important that we not forget that there is in the membership a very large silent majority. I have spent time with groups of countries that I think are forgotten or left behind. You have, for instance, the group of small islands states. When you meet them you hear their passionate pleas on the issues related to natural disasters or climate change. You know that the outer islands of the Marshall Islands or the Maldives are suffering from contamination of their fresh water by salt water, and that they start to have plans to move their population. Also, I had a meeting with landlocked countries — 31 countries that have 15 percent of their gross domestic product affected negatively by being landlocked. The least developed countries is another group that I met. I felt that if we, who serve this organization, distance ourselves from the sovereign equality of all states, we also lose the soul of this organization.
This again comes back to my point. Realism tells you that the P5 [permanent-five members of the Security Council: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States] are the ones who have the veto power, the most power in the Security Council. For peace and security, no doubt they’re there, but we also have to understand that this organization is here to serve all nations. If we lose that sense of understanding realities, of striving to bring in the elements of justice and equality, not only on an individual level but among states, then I think we lose the direction that I think we should aim for.
Q: Would you say you’re an idealist?
A: I am basically realistic. I say to people: Forget it. This is what things are like. There are human rights violations in these countries. There is no democracy there. There are huge breaches of international law. You have to face that. You have to be tough in realizing that. You may also draw the conclusion that to bring about change, the Security Council requires a Charter amendment. How can you do that realistically? That’s a good question. But if we don’t understand that we can never give up on what the world should be, then this organization loses its soul.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
A. Edward Elmendorf, who lives in Washington, is a former president and chief executive of the United Nations Association of the USA. He is a member of UNA’s Leo Nevas Human Rights Task Force and spent most of his career, before retiring, at the World Bank.