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.…

[Former Secretary General] Dag Hammarskjold said, our first line of defense is a strong international structure, international system, our system of law…. That is rare to hear that from the United States. They think they’re not as dependent, they have so many other bilateral instruments that they can use…. [But] we should realize that in today’s world the good international solution—let’s say climate, migration—the good international solution is, or at least should be seen as, a national interest … in order for us to deal with the issue of the rising sea level of Manhattan, there has to be an international agreement on the reduction of CO2 emissions.… We do it in our enlightened self-interest …

You have to almost strain yourself to find a problem which is absolutely national. So that’s why I’m still hopeful that in any political culture you would realize that you would have to cooperate. There is one danger, though, today. And that is the outside world is to many seen as a problem. That’s where the problems come from. This is a place where jobs disappear. And then there’s political forces that fish in these rather murky waters and identify the outside world, those outside, as a problem. And that to me could lead to real crisis in the day and age of globalization…

You made overtures to civil society groups when you became Deputy Secretary General. Is there a good partnership with civil society—and are there even more effective ways to engage and bring in such groups?

We need both the UN and civil society groups on the ground. When I was in Somalia…I got as good information from the NGO community as I did from my own people…. But then there is something deeper, of course, which is a role performed by civil society and that is reminding us in our part of the world that there is a world outside…. And also that we need to be reminded that the UN, even if we want to do very much, we cannot do it alone—we can be sometimes in the lead, but very often a catalyst for action. The problems of today are such that you must mobilize, let’s say Bretton Woods institution for financing, World Bank, you need to mobilize regional organizations, European Union, African Union, you need to mobilize the private sector with technology, employment and so forth, and we need to mobilize civil society and the academic world.

The UN has set up an investigative unit, led by its special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, to look at the legality and consequences of the US drone program. In that context, do you think there is are different approaches to keeping Americans safe—ones that are not as militarized in ways that preclude smart international cooperation?

This is very important issue. I was in Washington when 9/11 occurred and I saw the international support immediately—a unified Security Council on the action in Afghanistan. When you consider immediate actions, whether it is a suicide bomber or someone blowing up a train or other civilians that are killed, you realize that there’s not much room for negotiation or taking a more long-term approach. You have to be very, very clear and tough every time civilians are killed intentionally. There are explanations, but we have to be tough and clear on that.

But on the other hand…this phenomenon also has other roots…. hundreds of millions of young people who are unemployed in already poor countries [are] feeling frustration about their lives and are of course enormously receptive to extremist forces.… They cannot show that their institutions, their leaders even if elected, have given them [a] change of life…

And to me, perhaps even more important, is that terrorism has created “the fear factor,” that in a way probably some of the intentions of the terrorists have come true: that we have become more scared, that we look over [our] shoulder, and that we are more suspicious of people of certain ethnic backgrounds…. The fear factor is planted in you, which in turn leads us to more easily demonize and [identify] another group as a problem. In the case that this leads to, as you know yourself, to certain reductions of civil liberties or human rights. Then, in a way, they have succeeded.…

You have to be tough on the real phenomenon. I get absolutely furious when I see the kids, the women in the marketplace killed, I can’t mobilize any understanding whatsoever. But then you see that there’s also an element of provocation, and that you must not fall in that trap.

As you have noted, the polling and surveys about the UN are relatively good. Yet I come back to the issue of media coverage and how poorly it seems that the UN’s story is told in this country. What could be done to change the narrative?

I have taught myself not to complain about media, because media lives under their own conditions. But of course I ask myself questions…784 million people don’t have clean water…2.5 billion people don’t have sanitation. Thirty percent of humanity do not have toilets.… This leads to 3,000 children under the age of 5 dying every day. Every day. In diarrheas, dysentery, dehydration, and cholera. And I’ve seen them die in front of my own eyes. And I ask myself, “Where is the headline?” It comes up maybe in a feature article every third month or so, somewhere, but you know it’s usually the bomb or the instant event that is noticed. The silent death is not coming out.

And then there is something else…. I feel sometimes so enormously frustrated about coming in, like firemen after the fire, when I wanted to be there when the smoke developed, or when the perpetrator reached for the match…. And then I ask myself, “How about really doing prevention?” Getting in early when the first signal of a conflict is there…. So in other words, come back to media. Have you ever, Katrina, seen a headline in the press, first page, “Disaster Did Not Occur Somewhere”? Rewarding prevention, that would be something. And that I haven’t seen much of.…

You said last year that the UN is “often criticized but I think we are a reflection of the world as it is and not as we want it to be—but we have to bridge that gap, make sure the world becomes more of what we want it to be.” But what are the obstacles?

…People are expecting the UN to be the perfect machinery, [like] a Swiss watch…. Remember that this organization, even if it is for “we the people,” is the nation-states, and many nation-states are not always democracies or well-functioning societies. You must understand the United Nations is a reflection, a mirror, of the world as it is. But my job, and the Secretary General’s job, and all of us who work here, is to also remind ourselves of what the world should be. The best definition of my job, as I see it myself, is that I should try to, inch-by-inch, lessen that distance between what is and what should be.

In the context of “what is,” the reality of this time, you were sent last October by the Secretary General to Bamako, Mali before the French announced its invasion of that country. What was your role? What did you learn then that informs your view of what role the UN might now play in Mali?

At that time, we discussed a collective action. And then came the move from the north in the direction of Bamako, and then the French were invited by the Malian government to send their troops, which they did. And that’s where we are now. We will most probably be asked by the Security Council to provide a peacekeeping operation, probably mostly composed of African states. This of course builds on the premise that we get a request from the government of Mali, which we haven’t received yet.…

At the same [time] as we do peacekeeping, we must be doing what the United Nations should do—namely, humanitarian work and making sure that human rights are respected. And also hopefully build up institutions. I have found that institution-building is one of the most important parts of the work we do in order to make sure that conflicts do not erupt again. So the operation, which is now starting to take shape, will probably be some kind of peacekeeping in cooperation with the African Union, and humanitarian work which will be necessary not only in Mali but also in the whole region. And then the work to return refugees to Mali. And then, if there is peacekeeping, there are always risks that you will be involved in situations where human rights are abused. So we will have human rights monitors, and then building up civil society institutions.…

And it’s hard to go in until the fighting abates.

We have made it very clear that we will not go in until the situation stabilizes. We cannot go into a combat situation. And we don’t know where the extremist groups will go…. It’s a new situation, where the United Nations is faced with absolutely new challenges, but you have extremism, terrorism and these groups, and we are asked to play a role in the gray zone between peace enforcement combat operations and classic peacekeeping.

For many years, former UN Undersecretary General Brian Urquhart argued for the need for the UN to have a standing army which could be deployed early and in preventive ways.

…It’s a great idea—he compares it to calling the police in a local community, and that’s a very attractive analysis. But the problem is that it’s not realistic. When I talked to him last about this a couple years ago, we agreed that perhaps the best compromise from his idea, confronted by the realities of the day, is that we have a much better on-call system. You see, like the volunteer fire brigades or something like that…

A 9-1-1?

Yes, a 9-1-1! And these people should be ready to go within…let’s say five days or something like that. We have it in a disaster area. If there’s an earthquake or big flood, then we have people more or less out there quickly. My Geneva office was ready to go in twelve hours…. Translate that to the peacekeeping situation…Because now it takes far too long for us to set up an operation.

Is that something that the UN secretariat could play a role in, or does it require Security Council authorization?

No, I think that could be something that the Security Council and the Secretariat could agree on to have available. For instance, if you can imagine, hopefully, that there will be an end to the fighting in Syria, well, even with an end to the fighting you may very well have a situation on the ground with revenge. What do you do then on the ground to prevent that this explodes again?… I have found in my experience in the UN that there is a role for international eyes and ears. One of the tragedies about Rwanda was that international eyes and ears left.

While serving as President of the General Assembly in 2005, you were deeply involved in the meeting which led to the establishment of the principle of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P). Do you feel it has for the most part been of value? Or has it been abused in certain ways?

While I was at the UN and Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, there was a discussion about humanitarian intervention that didn’t fly. This was considered flagrant intervention by mostly Western powers. Most countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America felt that we used [it] as a political Trojan horse, a pretext to get in. Then the Canadians set up a commission, with Gareth Evans, then Australia’s foreign minister, I was involved, and were discussing whether one couldn’t turn this around, reframe the discussion. For example, if for reasons of sovereignty you couldn’t have humanitarian intervention, why don’t we then say, and mean it, that sovereignty implies that you protect your own population from ethnic cleansing, mass killing, genocide? Being in charge of a nation, a leader, whether you are elected or not, you have a responsibility as an aspect of sovereignty that your course must commit yourself to protect your population.… I was president of the General Assembly negotiating this. Summer 2005. Then the question arose as to what you can do if it’s a failed state and the population is being slaughtered. Then it was accepted for the first time that the international community has a responsibility to act when a state fails to live up to its responsibility to protect. That’s a big step.…


That political language could mean that solidarity does not necessarily stop at a border, but at human beings in need. But now come the difficulties. Who decides what then to do? And that’s where the biggest and most difficult negotiation came up. We added, which I had nothing against at all, that any action must be made on a collective basis. In other words, not [by] an individual nation…. That’s not covered by R2P. And second, of course, we came to the conclusion that the only body that would have the responsibility for international security would be the Security Council…. We forgot during the Libya debate that, in fact, that responsibility to protect is about more [than] a responsibility to prevent. We lost that first nuance. I didn’t go through that part of the language, we’re supposed to prevent before it comes… so now we’ve been stuck in the debate mostly at the phase of whether we should go in militarily, and that was what the Libya operation led to…. I am the first one to welcome that there was a reference in the resolution to R2P is both to protect, but Russia, China and others felt that NATO went too far in that resolution. So that is still a factor we witness in the Security Council deadlock and debate on Syria.

There is a legacy of mistrust?

Yes, the legacy that this will be used as a reason for regime change, automatically…But most countries would agree that if there’s a humanitarian crisis, then [they need] to have help on their side.… [In] 1991…we couldn’t even dream then of doing that on the human rights field, or in the case of massive ethnic cleansing. But now, 2005, there was this breakthrough, that after all you had to protect your population, and if you failed, the international community has a responsibility. So I believe R2P is there to stay. But in Syria it’s been almost impossible.

Do you see the possibility of a negotiated settlement in Syria?

Well there was a hopeful sign, an important step when [opposition coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib] came forward and said that he would work for [a] negotiated end of this conflict. He took a big risk.

The difference between a negotiated end to this conflict and a so-called military victory is a lot of time. It will take much longer time to achieve a military solution, so-called…. [And the] risk of a wave of revenge, the risk of the pendulum swinging, is greater if you don’t have a negotiated end. I’ve been in those situations…. So this is my faint hope now, that this step taken by the opposition is a sign that we could have an end to this by negotiated means, [with UN peace envoy] Lakhdar Brahimi.

We now have identified 4 million people at risk whom we want to reach either on our own, or through NGOs, or through the Syria Red Crescent, or whatever other methods we can have. Then we have 750,000 refugees in the neighborhood. And when we have this situation, which we regret deeply, that we don’t have a strong Security Council resolution, we don’t have the muscular power we need to bring about an end to the fighting, then there are two things that remain for us to do: one is the political negotiations with two of the best negotiators we can find–Kofi Annan and  Brahimi–but with a resolution which isn’t strong enough to bring about an end to the fighting…. The other thing we can do is to do our absolute utmost to help people in this urgent situation, who are in urgent need. And the latest is that we are seeing problems that have to do with…failing infrastructure, electricity grids gone, schools gone, and water facilities…. I have been all over the world and seen the cholera epidemics in situations like this—so we launched this very strong program to bring fresh water [to] the people…

In your view, are there enough women throughout the UN system—at all levels of authority? What can be done to increase the number of women who are sent as envoys and special representatives?

I must admit, it’s a conspicuous and sad absence of women in negotiations that I’ve seen. I don’t think I’ve ever…in my six negotiations, mediations, seen a woman on the other side. Horrible. On the other hand, when Salem Salem negotiated in Darfur, we invited the women’s organizations as privileged observers to the negotiations. And it wasn’t welcomed by all people on site, but we did so. And of course there is Security Council Resolution 1325 on women’s participation in peacemaking and peace building, which [is] binding. So those are signs forward…. Even in situations like Sudan, you would expect that you wouldn’t have free debate and courageous women or human rights activists, but I saw women’s organizations and human rights activists, not only in Darfur but also in Khartoum.

You’ve said that there are so many crises, that others don’t get attention they demand and deserve. What is being overlooked? Of course, there is Syria and Mali. But you’ve also talked about the silent crises—like the water crisis. Is there something in terms of your idea of media that is also amplifying what needs to be prevented? Is there something we should be paying attention to now to warn and rally people?

There are two areas where I don’t think we have developed enough international instruments…. [First,] organized crime, you have narcotics, a $300 billion [industry]; you have illegal arms trade [of] about $150 billion, prostitution, human trafficking [at] $10 billion…. They are so powerful now that they influence states to a degree that never before. I won’t say names but there are states that are called narco-states. And I have, in my work in certain parts of the world, met prosecutors, judges, who want to fight this but do it at the risk of their own lives and families’ lives…. if this continues with this pace and our methods of dealing with it [being] so weak, it could continue to undermine democracies or institutions…

[Second,] migration. It could be a very positive thing if we do it right, because it’s a sign of mobility, vitality, the free movement of people and ideas. But of course with the economic stress, this is seen as a problem, you built walls, and then you have illegal migrants, that discussion you have in your own country. And above all you risk having the discussion that you point to those outside as a problem and you demonize them and you identify them in ethnic or sectarian terms. On the other hand, it’s such a fantastic force. First of all, to my own daughter is now becoming an American citizen.…

Then I would come back [to] my ideas about prevention. And [the] idea that we could have a system that we are bound to act in the early stages.

But is it financial capacity? Is it political will?

We don’t seem to reward prevention.

In any part of life.

It’s a human trait. Even psychologically, you don’t want to see the problem…. Like I had a wound here, I didn’t care about it until it got infected. I didn’t care to do it right from the beginning…. Prevention is not rewarded. You wouldn’t be rewarded as a journalist if you said, “This is so nice. This prevention.”

It’s about the crisis.

I as foreign minister, I can tell you, when I suggested something in government a couple of times that we should do this—climate, for instance, we have to do it or otherwise five, ten years from now we’re going to be in horrible shape. Well, what is five, ten years from now? It’s two mandate periods for us. So you are stuck with the mandate period. Business. You ask your business friends—the quarterly curse. So we have to reward prevention.

We could speak for hours, but…one of the new trends [is] the emerging powers. Brazil, India, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey…. Not only emerging economies, they’re emerging powers in the political sense. And this is why there is a little bit of, you know, unrest—tensions in the UN about these countries not being part of the Security Council.

It’s been an ongoing discussion.

When I was President of the General Assembly, this was the area where it was so difficult to make any progress. We did Human Rights Council. We did the peace building commission. We did the counter-terrorist strategy. A few other things. But the Security Council Reform, no.

Why has no one has been prosecuted for the housing crisis? We have the task force to do it, now let’s put it to work, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes.