UN’s Jan Eliasson on Syria: ‘Don’t let the genie of war out of the bottle’

Secretary- General of the United Nations Jan Eliasson speaks onstage at the 2012 Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce New York
U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson speaks onstage at the 2012 Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce New York.
Credit: Getty Images

As the United Nations’ deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson has to attend to the world’s constantly erupting crises. Today, none of them is more pressing than Syria, where the U.N. recently stopped counting the dead.

Even so, Eliasson – a veteran Swedish diplomat – tells Metro that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon still counts the Syrian conflict not in days, but in number of dead. And, he reveals, U.N. mediation has recently prevented several conflicts.

Almost three years ago, I interviewed Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who told me that the killing must stop in Syria. Since then, it has gotten worse. What’s the U.N. good for if it can’t even stop the slaughter of innocent civilians?

First of all, let us recall that the primary responsibility to reach peace rests with the parties to the conflict. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen unity in the U.N. Security Council. We must always remember that the U.N. is only as strong as its member states want it to be.

The Security Council is much more efficient if there’s a strong resolution, and that’s not the case with Syria. That means that our very skillful negotiators, Lakhdar Brahimi and Kofi Annan, have been limited in their chances of reaching an agreement. We hope that the Geneva conference on Syria will be the beginning of a process that will lead to a negotiated settlement.

But it has taken far too long, and in the meantime we’ve had to deal with the symptoms of the conflict, the humanitarian situation. The U.N. has done what is possible to deal with the humanitarian situation inside Syria. This is a huge task for the U.N., the Red Cross and NGOs, together with the refugee problems, which are extremely serious in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.

Would it help if you and Mr. Ban more directly confronted those council members over not reaching an agreement?

We’ve spoken very openly about the problem of lack of unity in the Security Council. Ban Ki-moon feels very strongly personally about this. He’s not counting the days until we reach an end to the conflict – he’s counting the dead.

For him, 10 days of continued war equals 1,000 to 1,500 people killed. It would have been much easier if we’d dealt with the situation early on. When a conflict goes on, the sacrifices become much larger and the difficulties increase. For example, the problem of extremist groups wasn’t there at the beginning of the Syrian conflict.

So what’s the lesson learned from this crisis?

Act early. Don’t let the genie of war out of the bottle. The main lesson is to listen to vibrations on the ground such as human rights violations. Such acts are something we should be very observant about: When they start, it’s often a sign that a conflict will erupt. Then involve neighbors and regional organizations, in this case the Arab League.

Do you think the Syrian conflict has made U.N. Security Council reform easier because it’s now obvious to the world that the U.N. can’t keep operating like this?

Security Council reform is a member state issue. But a sign of countries’ awareness of the need to reform is the fact that last October, France suggested that the veto should not be applied to situations of mass crimes. Security Council reform is one of the U.N.’s most difficult issues. When I was president of the General Assembly, this reform issue was the most difficult to move forward.

Another hugely important U.N. task is peacekeeping. In the past, wealthy countries nobly contributed peacekeepers, but now the task is almost exclusively done by soldiers from poorer countries, while rich nations fork over the money. Is that a healthy situation?

We’re, of course, grateful for the sacrifices that many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are making in our peacekeeping operations. But I also think that our operations should better reflect the world as it is.

We’re an organization that’s built on universality and the sovereign equality of member states, and I’d very much hope that the traditional peacekeeping countries also accept to serve.

Many countries in Western Europe, as well as the United States, are now involved in missions that have the support of the UN Security Council but are carried out by organizations such as NATO in Afghanistan.

Have you told them so? If so, how did they respond?

There’s an awareness and discussion about this, not least because of the upcoming military reduction in Afghanistan. I think there’s a preparedness to consider increased participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

At least one question is off the U.N.’s plate now that Iran and the international community have signed an interim deal. It happened after years of sanctions and U.N. inspections. Are you happy with the diplomatic progress so far?

The U.N. has made some progress over the past year, admittedly in a somber world, for example in the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] and the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria. In other cases we’ve exercised preventive diplomacy and dealt with conflicts in the early stages.

Iran is, of course, an important area as well. If an agreement on peaceful use of nuclear energy there can be reached, we’ll have the possibility to involve Iran in other important areas, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. It could be a gain for the international community.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev allegedly banging his shoe on the table is one of the most notable incidents from the U.N. General Assembly. Do you have any favorite visual moments from your time when he served as president there?

Once I was trying to explain the water crisis in the world, so I lifted my glass, tapped it with my pen, and everyone fell silent. I said, “This tap water that I can drink in front of you is a dream that’s not available to hundreds of millions of people in the world, and that’s the reason thousands of children die of dysentery and diarrhea every day.” I don’t know how many times people have reminded me of that moment.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

Brooklyn man charged in roommate's stabbing death

A Brooklyn man accused of violently stabbing his roommate to death on Monday is in police custody and faces murder charges.

International

Dinosaurs could have survived asteroid strike

It turns out there is a good and a bad time for the planet to be hit by a meteor, and dinosaurs were just unlucky.…

National

OkCupid admits to Facebook-style experimenting on customers

By Sarah McBrideSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - OkCupid, a top U.S. matchmaking website, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology, the IAC/InterActive Corp service said on…

Local

MTA fares still increasing 4 percent in newly…

The agency said the 4 percent increases, previously announced in December, will remain steady even as the MTA deals with increasing labor costs.

Movies

Interview: Brendan Gleeson on the way 'Calvary' depicts…

Brendan Gleeson talks about how his new film "Calvary" began over drinks and how his character here is the opposite of the lead in "The Guard."

Movies

'Get on Up' producer Mick Jagger on the…

Mick Jagger, a producer on the James Brown biopic "Get on Up," talks about the time had to tell the singer some bad news and his favorite JB record.

Television

'Glee' star Lea Michele to appear on 'Sons…

"Glee" star Lea Michele has been confirmed as a guest star in the final season of "Sons of Anarchy."

Television

TV watch list, Monday, July 28: 'The Bachelorette'…

See Andi Dorfman make her big choice on tonight's 'Bachelorette' finale.

MLB

Angelo Cataldi: Ryan Howard deserves better from Phillies

Just last week, Ryan Howard endured the embarrassment of a benching that was inevitable, and yet still shocking.

NFL

Larry Donnell has inside track in Giants tight…

Little-known Larry Donnell of Grambling State currently has the inside track, as the second-year player has received the bulk of the first-team reps.

NFL

Computer to Jets: Start Michael Vick over Geno…

Jets general manager John Idzik says the choice of who starts between second-year quarterback Geno Smith and veteran Michael Vick will be a “Jets decision.”

MLB

Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.

Travel

Glasgow: Hey, hey, the gangs aren't here

This European city has done a good job getting rid of its more violent residents and revitalizing with artists.

Education

Babson College tops list of best colleges for…

Money magazine has just released its inaugural list of "The Best Colleges for Your Money" -- and the answers have surprised many. Babson College, which…

Education

NYC teens learn how to develop apps during…

Through a program sponsored by CampInteractive, the high schoolers designed their own community-focused apps.

Tech

The Ministry of Silly Walks app is both…

Monty Python have dug into their back catalogue for cash-ins once more, but with the Ministry of Silly Walks app, they've made something that's fun too.