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.


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