The World As It Is and the World As It Should Be: Interview with United Nations Deputy Secretary-General

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Alliance for Peacebuilding president and chief executive officer Melanie Greenberg interviewed Mr. Eliasson in June 2013 at the UN headquarters in New York about his experiences with conflict prevention over the course of his rich and varied career.

Melanie: What is successful conflict prevention?

Jan: We hardly ever hear about successful conflict prevention, because violent conflict defused by diplomacy is often not considered as newsworthy. Have you ever seen headlines in the press saying a disaster did not occur? During my time as minister of foreign affairs of Sweden I worked intensely to put conflict prevention on the international agenda. But I found that it was difficult to get support for preventive measures because people don’t want to deal with something that is not an immediate danger. We are stuck in the short term. Unfortunately, we don’t often hear of many examples of successful crisis prevention, but there are a few.

In 1991-92, Southern Africa suffered one of the worst droughts in its history.  Eleven countries were threatened by starvation and we had a month before it would become a huge humanitarian crisis.  At the time, I was Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations and we worked with sub-regional organizations in Southern Africa to avert the crisis.  In spite of the apartheid sanctions that were in place, we used major ports in South Africa and sent in water drilling equipment as well as other forms of humanitarian assistance needed.  As a result, very few lives were lost.  Very few know about this operation.  We spent hundreds of millions of dollars, opened up railroads, and even set up a World Food Programme office in Johannesburg. I am extremely proud we did it.

Another example is the preventive deployment of UN peacekeepers in Macedonia in 1995, which was very important in order to stop the horrible conflict in the Balkans from spreading.

Now, I am extremely concerned that the horror in Syria will spread to Jordan and Lebanon. It is critical that we find a political solution to the crisis in Syria. This is proving to be difficult, not least due to the divisions within the UN Security Council. Meanwhile the situation on the ground is turning ever more complicated, taking on religious and sectarian tones. We need a preventive strategy that contains humanitarian elements, financial elements, political support, and diplomatic measures within and outside the country. It will show that prevention is not an academic exercise and that it can be a truly operational concept. And we—you at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and we at the United Nations—have a joint interest in identifying those operational concepts.

How can we coordinate those operational concepts among all of us working on these issues and agree on a common purpose?

There is a growing realization that the price paid for not acting early is extremely high.

Jan: When the vibrations on the ground are ignored, when human rights violations go on and we wait for the conflict to turn into a civil war, then the price paid in terms of lives, money, and the reputation of international organizations is enormous. When I was mediating between Iraq and Iran in 1980-86, within a year we had a proposal for a solution, but both sides swept it aside. Seven years later, almost the same proposal was accepted in Resolution 598. By then, however, approximately 700,000 people had been killed and three million had become refugees and internally displaced people. And, of course, hatred between Shiites and Sunnis had become deeper and continues to persist in the region.

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Credit: United Nations

The current situation in Syria is the same. A year ago, we talked about setting up institutions. Today, we are talking about the risk of another wave of violence erupting after a so-called military victory. This concern has come too late, because the hatred has worsened and the death toll is now around 100,000. To speak about reconciliation after so many have been killed is much more difficult. I hope that reason and logic will lead us to giving preventive action higher priority. It requires not only mobilization of political energy and resources of UN Member States but also civil society support.

Unfortunately, people have almost become numb to frequent unacceptable horrors. When a suicide bomber blew up a bus carrying young women in Pakistan and the attackers, bragging about it, went after those who survived in the hospital and held the staff and patients hostage, the horrific incident received some attention. But when you see more of such crimes against civilians all over the world, you tend to become indifferent. We simply close our eyes.

How can we raise people’s sensitivity again to allow for more effective prevention?

Jan: It is not enough to just issue a statement or condemn the act. We have to reach out to political and religious leaders and assign responsibilities to stop such horrors.  The most important contribution that diplomats and international civil servants can make to improve the world is to start thinking operationally and preventively.

If the Security Council also acted jointly and in unison on threats to international peace and security, that would be a great step forward. The Security Council is consumed—understandably, because the crises are so many—by the fires that are already out there. But the Council should be there at the first signs of smoke when the arsonist reaches for the match.

What do you think about Kenya, which has been held up as another modern success of prevention during the 2013 presidential election?

Jan: That’s a good example. We were on the brink of a huge tragedy that could have been worse than the aftermath of the 2007-2008 elections.  In many ways the 2008 post-election crisis in Kenya is a good example of diplomatic action under the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine. Many lives were saved thanks to early action.  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took diplomatic steps to address the violence by encouraging mediation efforts by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who travelled there in January 2008 with a negotiation team known as the African Union Panel of Eminent African Personalities. The United Nations provided mediation support and worked closely with Mr. Annan on the ground. At the end of February 2008, a negotiated settlement was reached through the National Accord and Reconciliation Act. After the crisis Mr. Annan commented “under R2P, force is last resort. Political and diplomatic intervention is the first mechanism. And I think we’ve seen a successful example of its application.”

Today the United Nations is increasing its mediation support teams and now also has standby units that are being deployed in several situations. They work very effectively and I hope that their efforts will have helped stabilize the situation in Kenya on a more permanent basis.

That is a very interesting civil society story as well.  There was a lot of coordinated action looking for a real leverage point, recognizing that we could not do everything throughout the whole country.

Jan: Yes, civil society plays a very important role. When I was in Somalia in 1992 during the worst part of the civil war, I remember how important civil society and NGOs were in terms of early warning. We got information from areas with the worst fighting and the worst risks of things getting very serious. At the time I developed a very close relationship with civil society. In the area of mediation there are also, of course, Track II initiatives—which you, Melanie, have also been involved in—where civil society can play a crucial role, especially in civil war situations. Sometimes governments are concerned about bringing in international organizations or another government because it might look like they are giving legitimacy to what they call terrorists or separatists. In these cases, the civil society and NGO track is important. The Carter Center in Georgia has done important work in that spirit. Professor Peter Wallensteen at Uppsala University in Sweden, and you also, Melanie, have done similar work in this area.

What are your thoughts about the links between R2P and prevention?

Jan: They are certainly linked. I remember the origin of R2P. We were discussing humanitarian intervention in the early 1990s, when Bernard Kouchner, of Médecins Sans Frontières, brought up the issue of ingérence humanitaire [right to humanitarian intervention] to stop a humanitarian crisis from turning into ethnic cleansing and genocide and that in the worst cases, we should have the right to act. It was rejected, wholesale, by Member States who saw it as a threat to their sovereignty.  At the time, in 1991, I was conducting negotiations on the humanitarian mandate in the United Nations.

Then the R2P concept returned in a more elegant form of dealing with the issue: It stated that if sovereignty is so important—which it is—does it not imply that the state has a responsibility to protect its own population from genocide or mass killing? The answer is yes! But what is to be done when a state can’t protect its own population? That’s when the international community has the responsibility to intervene. The intention was, and still is, that R2P serves a preventive purpose.

The Libya debate, however, has put a strong emphasis on R2P in military terms and Security Council actions. The discussion largely focused on whether the Libya experience had hurt the concept so much that we would not be able to apply it in the future. However, the thematic debate on R2P held at the UN General Assembly in September last year was encouraging as it confirmed that Member States still largely support the concept. I have hope that the concept will be alive and used in the future.

Ultimately, effective prevention is about picking up the early signs of conflicts, before the situation escalates.

Solidarity with human beings in need does not stop at the border. We know how much mass killings hurt the UN’s reputation. But this reputational cost is less important than the fact that so many people are suffering and paying the price for states not having that right balance between respect for sovereignty and respect for solidarity.

It seems that the choice is very stark: Either we intervene or we don’t, and it is often talked about in military terms.

Jan: While Chapter VII of the UN Charter and the option of using sanctions and military force are important for the credibility of the UN and the credibility of the Security Council in particular, I still claim that Chapter VI [Pacific Settlement of Disputes] is underutilized. We need to make better use of Article 33 [of Chapter VI], which is music to my ears: “The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.” How often do we do this?

Were you pleased with the Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda and the emphasis there on peace as a primary goal?

Jan: The High-Level Panel underlines the basic UN formula that was first formulated at the 2005 World Summit: There is no peace without development and there is no development without peace. And there is no lasting peace or development without respect for human rights.

When I was in Darfur, I saw that you need all three at the same time to have a lasting effect on peace and development. There was no harvest because of the fighting and the brutalization of the war led to increased hatred. A couple of years after the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document’s emphasis on the interrelationship between peace, development, and human rights, I saw in Darfur how all this translated on the ground; you simply have to work with all three dimensions at the same time. This is a huge challenge for the UN because it means that we have to break down a lot of walls to work effectively. When I have meetings on the post-2014 situation in Afghanistan, I include the political and humanitarian departments, peacekeeping, UNDP, the human rights office, all the elements. Only when we take this holistic approach can we do the job right.

How can all the actors involved in conflict prevention best work together, including the peacebuilding and development communities?

Jan: We have much work to do to bring down institutional walls. At the UN, but also in the European Union and in national governments, we work through ministries, which are structured in vertical silos, whereas the problems are interrelated. In terms of the post-2015 process, the degree to which we will be able to go into details on the peace and security side is difficult to say. Member States are focused primarily on core development challenges and on formulating a post-2015 Development Agenda, which is concrete on eradicating poverty and on sustainability. The Report of the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda laid out a clear vision and was well received.  We are now in the process of collecting inputs from various other sources, including from consultations in the field, from Jeffrey Sachs’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network, from the UN’s Regional Economic Commissions, from the task forces, from all corners.

My job as well as yours at the Alliance for Peacebuilding is to reduce the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be.

As a next step, the secretary-general will deliver his report to the General Assembly at a High Level meeting on September 25, 2013. Then Member States will bring all these elements together and point the direction forward in the same, inspiring and mobilizing, way as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) did. The MDGs are one of the great success stories of the UN. They have had a very mobilizing effect, permeating national planning processes in many countries, and have been a very important driving force to fight poverty. We need something similar for 2015 but then in a much more complicated world. We have to think about climate change, migration, and urbanization — in the future, 60 percent of humanity will be living in cities, putting tremendous pressure on infrastructure, not least sanitation and water. But there are also positive trends: This is the century when women will take the place they should have had in history. We have also seen an explosion of information and communication technology, which offers enormous power to mobilize and share knowledge. Combined with improvement in education, it is a very positive force. It is therefore crucial to define these goals for the future and to pursue peace, development, and human rights at the same time. That is where peacebuilding comes in as such an important concept.

How can our peacebuilding community best collaborate with the UN to prevent conflict?

Jan: I believe that we need to strike a balance between idealism and realism. My answer to those who criticize the UN is that the UN is as strong as the Member States want it to be. The UN is a reflection of the world as it is, whether you like it or not. Democracy is not everywhere, human rights violations take place, wars and huge inequalities persist. But if we forget the UN Charter, if we forget the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, if we forget what our work and the world should be, then we have failed. My job as well as yours at the Alliance for Peacebuilding is to reduce the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be. It is relevant for the UN and for the Alliance for Peacebuilding. This is what we are fighting for, every day.

Jan Eliasson is one of the world’s foremost diplomats and experts on peacebuilding. He was appointed Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations in March 2012. He served as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden, chair of Water Aid/Sweden, member of the UN Secretary-General’s Advocacy Group of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Special Envoy to Darfur, Sudan, President of the sixtieth session of the UN General Assembly, and the Secretary-General’s personal representative for Iran/Iraq. Mr. Eliasson was the first UN Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs and was involved in operations in Africa and the Balkans. He has taken several initiatives on landmines, conflict prevention, and humanitarian action.

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