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More Than Ever We Need the UN
Katrina vanden Heuvel
The Nation
February 20 2013
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.)(…)
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.
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.…
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…
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