UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson speaks to field commanders and fighters of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Wahid Nur faction in Mulagat January 17, 2008. Reuters/Albany Associates/Stuart Price/Handout
The United Nations gets a bad rap. But headlines about deadlock in the Security Council—which limits the UN’s ability to act effectively on issues of peace and security—and the UN’s missteps too often overwhelm the daily work the UN and its agencies do to tackle hunger, disease, poverty and human rights abuse. Many of the UN’s programs are quiet successes; all of them are urgently important.
No one knows this better than UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, the UN’s second highest-ranking official. During the past three decades, Eliasson served throughout the agency and across the globe: as Sweden’s Ambassador to the United States; as mediator on the Iran-Iraq war; as first-ever Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs; as special envoy for Darfur; and, prior to his promotion to deputy secretary-general, as president of the General Assembly.
Eliasson and I sat down earlier this month to discuss the daunting challenges facing the UN; how to build a stronger, more accountable organization; and what the media miss. In our interview, it was clear how acutely aware Eliasson is of the gap between aspiration and reality, and how deeply he’s committed to a twenty-first-century multilateralism. I continue to believe, as Eliasson does, that the UN framework provides the best one for advancing both American interests and international peace. (Just imagine, as we near the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, all that could have been averted if Washington had deferred to the UN Security Council.)
In many ways, the UN has become the world’s geopolitical emergency room. The question is whether it can survive. At the end of the interview, Eliasson brought out a small ziplock bag, unzipped it and pulled out his dog-eared and heavily underlined copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, inscribed by Eleanor Roosevelt. “This,” he told me, “is really a treasure for me.” An edited version of our conversation follows.
Every day, the UN provides food to 90 million people in seventy-three countries, and assists over 36 million refugees and people fleeing war, famine or persecution. As we meet, UNICEF is undertaking a large-scale operation in Syria to provide safe water to more than 10 million people. Why do very few Americans know about these UN activities? Is it a failure on the UN’s part to tell its story? The failure of US media coverage? Is there perhaps a legacy of mutual mistrust between the US and the UN?
Jan Eliasson: Well, first of all, recent Pew surveys show we are coming out pretty well when it comes to the UN’s general standing…. They reveal that people increasingly understand that today’s problems cannot be solved at home, they must be solved together with others. Of course then there are complaints, and in some case legitimate criticism of the UN in certain respects. Like in Syria, where the Security Council is not living up to its responsibility to provide peace and security by having a strong unified position…. Like any big organization, we need to do things better. But I do think the legacy of mistrust probably goes back to the positions and the situation in the Middle East: Israel-Palestine, the Zionist resolution, the fact that the Human Rights Council in the beginning dealt almost exclusively with the situation around Israel-Palestine, but also the Lebanon bombings, which gave the Human Rights Council, in US and also Israel, a bad name. And then of course, it doesn’t come naturally for a big country to say that we need international cooperation.…