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INTERVIEW: Stop dividing humanity into “us and them” – UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson

Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson during his final interview with UN News, days before leaving office.
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Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson during his final interview with UN News, days before leaving office.

INTERVIEW: Stop dividing humanity into “us and them” – UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson

UN Affairs

Jan Eliasson took up the job of Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations in July 2012, and while the post has been challenging, it has not proved daunting for the Swedish national – a veteran of international affairs, with decades of diplomatic experience in world capitals and conflicts.

On a national level, Mr. Eliasson has served as his country’s Foreign Minister, Ambassador to the United States, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and even Ambassador to the United Nations.

On an international level, his service includes serving as the President of the 60th session of the UN General Assembly; the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Darfur; the Secretary-General’s Personal Representative for Iran/Iraq and the first UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. His areas of focus have included operations in Africa and the Balkans, as well as initiatives on landmines, conflict prevention and humanitarian action. In the early 1980s, Mr. Eliasson was part of the UN mediation missions in the war between Iran and Iraq, and he served as a mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in the early 1990s.

Mr. Eliasson spoke with UN News on the eve of Christmas about his service with the world body.

UN News: You have served as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations for close to five years. What’s that experience been like?

Jan Eliasson: It’s been a fantastic journey, with many ups, but also many downs, and with a sense of responsibility falling upon me and also feeling tremendous attachment to the people – not only the people in terms of ‘we, the people’ as in the UN Charter – but also all my great colleagues at UN Headquarters and in UN agencies and around the world. I have enjoyed more than anything else being out there in the field, whether it was to see refugees from Syria, or people who are peacekeepers in different parts of the world, and humanitarian workers, of course, where I also have my heart. It has been a fantastic experience and it will mark my life until the very end.

UN News: As Deputy Secretary-General, what have been the highlights of the past five years for you?

Jan Eliasson: Well, during this five-year period, I think, historically speaking, the climate change agreement is the most important one; and it’s a great tribute to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Without his personal involvement, without his passion for bringing up the issue to the highest political levels, I don’t think we would have had the Paris Agreement.


I myself was very deeply engaged in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were negotiated for almost four years. And it was a joyful moment when they were adopted, on 25 September [2015] – it was actually the day Pope Francis visited New York and he gave his blessing to the SDGs. And that evening, I remember, I went to bed with a smile. I felt that we had charted the role ahead on development, and in a transformative new way which was unique in diplomatic negotiations.

I was also very proud of the Secretary-General asking me to take over the initiative called ‘Human Rights Upfront’ – putting human rights on par with peace and security and development, both in practice and in theory. It’s also involved seeing human rights violations as first warnings of conflicts to come. I think we need to – at this stage, when there are so many conflicts exploding around the world, or countries imploding – we need really to listen to the first signs, the first vibrations from the ground; and human rights violations are such warning signs. We now systematically go to the Security Council to give early warning on situations that could turn into even mass atrocity situations. It’s, to me, a great step forward for the UN.

UN News: What have been the greatest disappointments for you as Deputy Secretary-General?

It seems like we don’t want to see that problems turn into disaster, that human violations can turn into mass atrocities. It seems that we don’t even want to care about it – that we get interested in a wound only when it is infected.

Jan Eliasson: Well, the absolutely most dominant issue in that category is, of course, the Syria tragedy. Since the first day I arrived, I have worked on this issue. And I have felt huge disappointments – several times we have not been able to find a solution, an end to this conflict. In the summer of 2012, we had a chance: the Security Council could have had a resolution, a binding resolution, on the basis of Kofi Annan’s negotiation at the end of June 2012 – we missed that opportunity at a time when there was no ISIS, no Daesh, and at a time you had a decent opposition, well-formed and well-coordinated. They could have sat down, in line with the transitional arrangement that was planned, and started writing a constitution and then had elections… That was four years ago, in the meantime hundreds of thousands of people have been killed; refugees are in neighbouring countries and de-stabilizing world political conditions.

UN News: Is there anything you learnt over the past five years as Deputy Secretary-General that you wished you had known when you first started the job?

Jan Eliasson: I knew it five years ago and I know it now! It seems so difficult to learn the lesson, namely, that we must understand that we must deal with problems early on. It seems like we don’t want to see that problems can turn into disaster, that human violations can turn into mass atrocities. It seems that we don’t even want to care about it – that we get interested in a wound only when it is infected.

We have to have a culture of prevention. We are now seeking around $22 billion for all the humanitarian needs in the world today – unfortunately we only receive half of that – and we also pay $8.5 billion for peacekeeping. So, in other words, almost $30 billion is spent on dealing with the symptoms – the end result of critical developments – while we spend, perhaps, a couple of a hundred million dollars on the prevention side.

UN News: Why is that?

Jan Eliasson: I think it is, unfortunately, also part of human nature. When you talk about a triple-bypass operation, the hero is the surgeon who does the triple-bypass operation. But how about the nutritionist who tells you that you should have an apple a day, you should sleep eight hours a day, you should be nice to your friends, your family and your environment – that, by doing that, you will be less prone to having a heart attack?


In other words, prevention doesn’t pay. It’s not rewarded. When I was in government, if I were to speak about something that could have an effect in four or five years’ time, in the government’s next mandated period, sometimes the eyes of my colleagues became a bit glassy. That’s because you have your attention on the period to which you are elected; a company in the private sector has the quarterly report; and so on. The strategic, long-term thinking is lacking in our societies. I think we really need to have a good look now into how we organize ourselves in today’s world – accepting international cooperation as a given in today’s world, but also making sure that we act preventively to show that we can more effectively defend our institutions.

UN News: Do you have any departing message for world leaders?

Jan Eliasson: To world leaders, I would like to say to stop dividing humanity into “us and them.” I am very worried about this trend of identifying yourself in contrast to others, rather than together with others. Whether it is your religious belonging, or your ethnic group, or your tribe in some countries, that trend means that you are actually undermining the equal worth of all human beings, because you easily consider the “us” superior to the “them.” And that feeds polarization and division, and then you are more prone, in that situation, to be receptive to fearmongering, and even selling hatred.

In today’s world we don’t need more hatred, we don’t need more fear. We need more hope, and realization that we live together. The most important word in today’s world is, in fact, “together.” And that is also the name of a campaign that UN is now leading to help make nations accept this need to fight xenophobia. That is the most basic message that translates itself into how we, in the future, deal with migration and refugees, how we deal with development, how we deal with root causes to end conflicts earlier.

UN News: What advice would you have for your successor, Amina Mohammed, as she prepares to become the next Deputy Secretary-General in 2017?

Jan Eliasson: I don’t think she needs much advice! She and I have worked together, and it’s a bit presumptuous to give her advice, because she has worked in the UN intensely. She is one of the architects, one of the most important architects, behind the Sustainable Development Goals. She is also very well anchored in government, which I was also before I came to the UN, except that for her it was Nigeria and for me it was Sweden. So we have similar backgrounds. My advice for her is to stick very strongly to her basic strength – namely the credibility and standing she has in the world with the Sustainable Development Goals. If these Goals can now be translated to national planning, she will have done a historic job.

I also hope that she, together with the new Secretary-General, will also see the beauty of working together on peace and security, and development and human rights, as one, and accepting, what I would call the “horizontal approach.” But I didn’t have to tell her that, I think it’s in her from the beginning.


UN News: You have a few days left in office – how will you be spending those days?

Jan Eliasson: I have been doing a lot of logistics, which is not my favourite activity. I’ve been dealing with moving arrangements, emptying my house, saying goodbye to colleagues, answering letters. It’s an exercise that has been bittersweet in the sense that now it’s really final. I have this ticket for use in a few days’ time, and it’s a one-way ticket to Stockholm. It’s been rarely so in my years here that I don’t have another return ticket!

But, to use the metaphor of my “oasis” – I am very close to the oasis now, and over there it’s Swedish Christmas, which is something fantastic. I will dress the Christmas tree, and I will be Santa Claus, pressured not only by the grandchildren, but also by the children. And I will go to our farm where we have a fantastic environment. I will read, I will think, and be with my family. I will also continue to build a stone wall at the farm. Normally, I want to bring down walls, but I am building a stone wall, and that work is unending!

There will be lots of things to do. But these past days, there’s a bit of melancholy in them. I also started missing New York, which I sometimes criticize for its sirens in the middle of the night, and the traffic, and getting stuck, and yet I still have this irrepressible love for this environment – for the vitality, the energy, walking on the street, where you hear hundreds of languages, and you know all of your neighbours, and the people in the neighbourhood are friends. I will miss New York, but I also look forward to a new chapter in my life.

UN News: You deal with some of the world’s most pressing and challenging issues. Yet you come across as a rather happy, or as someone with a generally positive, even sunny, disposition, despite everything – why is that?

Jan Eliasson: It is probably some type of defence mechanism! If I were to become depressed, sleepless and worried, it would spread to others. I need to give hope and courage, and my nature is such that I don’t consider it morally right, or dignified even, to give up. I simply say to myself: we have two type of developments under which we thrive and grow; one of these is through successful ventures.

But then I’m trying to tell myself and my colleagues that we also grow in difficult situations. I tell my children that you get stronger walking uphill, and to take on challenges, seeing them not as problems, but again, as challenges. It’s just an attitude. I must say I am optimistic, basically from the point of view that I think we never can give up. But I also must admit that I am, in today’s world, a worried optimist. There are so many issues which we have to take seriously now, and even if we don’t lose hope or lose our sense of distance to the work we conduct, we should also be seriously facing up to some of the gravest problems we see today around the world.


UN News: What’s been the best thing about being the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations?

Jan Eliasson: Well, I have a great view from the 38th floor – I see more the East River, more water than anyone! But, more seriously, what has been most important is that in that position, I have something which my colleagues called “convening power.”

The fact that the 38th floor [Note: the top floor of the UN Secretariat building where the executive offices of Secretary-General and the Deputy Secretary are located] calls for a meeting means that people have to be well-prepared. We can meet in my office or in my conference room, and I can bring in people from all the different parts of the UN system – whether in person or on the screen, and put the problem in the centre and use this beautiful machinery to work out ways to resolve it.

Also, if there’s anything I hope that I have contributed during these five years, it’s to have more of an acceptance of working horizontally rather than vertically. I think we in bureaucracies often get stuck in silos, and we think that we are going to solve problems within our silo. I say you should be very good in your specialty, of course, and follow your mandate – but when it comes to solving problems, you better go horizontal and work across silos with others. I think the most vital and the best functioning entities in the UN in the future would be those which realize that they can and should work with others on problems.

UN News: What will you miss the most about being the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations?

Jan Eliasson: I don’t know! My wife claims that I will need long period of de-toxicification, because this has become a little bit of a drug, this type of life. She even jokes with me sometimes if I am not in the best form in the evenings, even though I usually try to leave my problems behind – but sometimes, if I am worried, she looks at me and says: “What’s the problem? Didn’t you have enough crises this week?” It’s not a joke from her side, and I realize she’s being serious. So I will probably miss that: playing a role. You know, I am used to having influence now, either directly through the UN or with Member States, and even with public opinion. It will probably be a case of a bit of itchy fingers for some time. On the other hand, I have been longing for such a long time to finally arrive at that “oasis,” after walking in the desert for so many years! I am waiting to be lazy, I am waiting to just be private, and to strike a better balance between my personal and professional life.

UN News: Given your approach to your work, especially at such high levels, how will you adjust going from that to a regular citizen, with your days no longer dictated by meetings with world leaders or those in need, and so on?

Jan Eliasson: Why don’ t you come and see me in three months’ time?! If the Department of Public Information will let you go! I hope I will be in good shape. I will try to use this period to pause and reflect on what I have experienced.

There is so much going on now and we have such a tremendously hectic pace. I hope to be able to lean back and think about where we are and where should we go – as nations, in my country, Sweden, and in Europe, with the crises there for European Union cohesion and dealing with refugee issues, but also, the world: where are we heading? This polarization that we see between different groups inside societies, the demonization of different groups, the us-and-them syndrome, all of these things have been brewing in my mind. But because of the hectic pace, I feel that I haven’t focused enough.

So I think I will thrive on just letting this mature in me and seeing what comes out of it. I have received already a number of offers, I’m very flattered and honoured, but I’m telling everybody: come back in March! That’s also a test to see whether they are still interested at that time. And then I will ask four questions: is it interesting? Is it important? Is it fun – something that really makes me go for it? And, do I have people to help me deal with it? If the answer is “yes” on all four, I will seriously consider doing it. But I will want to be, to allow myself, really, to be lazy, to sleep one extra hour in the morning, and, if I may say so, stay five more minutes in the shower, to have two cups of coffee, to read the whole paper, and then to ask myself: what else do I do today? I have never done that.


In 1980, Olof Palme, the Swedish Prime Minister, asked me to help him mediate in the Iran-Iraq war. He was given the function of Special Representative on Iraq-Iraq, and I was a relatively young diplomat, who had known him a little bit because I was working with the Vietnam War when I was in the US, and he was extremely interested in that issue. He asked me on 11 November 1980 to come along to New York on his first trip and then go on his shuttle diplomacy… Since then, I have been going at this pace – for 36 years!

UN News: What jumps out beyond your decades of service in the international arena, is your background. You were born in the midst of the Second World War, in humble circumstances far from the trappings of international diplomacy – and yet here you are, the second-highest official of the United Nations – what comes to mind when you reflect on that?

Jan Eliasson: The feeling I have when you describe this is simply gratitude. I am extremely grateful that I was given this opportunity, that I was born in a country where, at that time, it was possible for a person from my background to have an education.

My father had seven years of schooling; my mother, just four – every second day, by the way, in the countryside where she lived. My aunt died of tuberculosis, more or less from a lack of food, the right food, and the cold little hut they lived in, in the province of Halland in Sweden. For me, then, to be the first one in the family to have that opportunity, I feel almost as though I owe it to hundreds of years of predecessors in the family who never had a chance. They were working in a way that was unbelievable, under conditions that were horrible.

And now, I was the first one to have that chance. My parents didn’t really show great expectations, but I knew they had them, of course. Their dreams were translated to me and to my brother. So I had a tremendous motivation to win, to be the best at everything, whether it was sports or school. I always applied to the most difficult courses. I had this sense of competition built into me, both with negative and positive sides to it.

This polarization that we see between different groups inside societies, the demonization of different groups, the us-and-them syndrome, all of these things have been brewing in my mind. But because of the hectic pace, I feel that I haven’t focused enough.

UN News: It sounds like your family and your home country played a role…?

Jan Eliasson: First of all, Sweden, from which I come, is a pretty egalitarian society. In Sweden, even people with a humble background can have a career in the civil service, of course. In the past in the foreign ministry, when I entered in 1965, there were a lot of people from nobility, with family connections… but there was a clear change, and I don’t think that today in Sweden people even ask about background. Sometimes you can see it in a name, but I come from an egalitarian tradition. I also come from a family where I was sort of told from the beginning that we’re all equal and we have to stand up for our values. And my values are part of my genes. They’re also part of my absolute conviction on how to build a good society.

So when I entered the foreign service, it was on the basis of equality and I’ve been trying to stand up for that my whole life. I think it’s extremely important that we see each other as people, that we get the tremendous energy coming from working collectively and showing respect for each other, especially in today’s world where there are so many trends of dividing and polarizing, and even using fear and hatred to further that division.

I think we always need to be reminded of values. That’s probably why I was drawn to the UN, even if I’m a realist. I always say, basically, the UN is a reflection of the world as it is. It’s not a pretty place, and I expect my people to be very realistic. But I also say to my colleagues: don’t ever forget that the UN is also a reflection or mirror of the world as it should be.

And we need to have in today’s world something that brings hope to us and brings inspiration to move ahead. And that’s where you come back to the values, the values that I grew up with, but also the values that the UN Charter speaks about. And that’s why I always have it with me, just to remind myself and to remind others. If you have strong and clear values, your daily decisions become so much easier. It’s when you don’t have the sense of direction that you go back and forth, and zig zag. If I am pretty relaxed when I get back after work, it’s because I think I am trying to do my best – but very much helped by (a) good values and (b) good colleagues!

UN News: How would your parents feel to see you where you are in life now?

Jan Eliasson: That was the most hypothetical question I’ve received in a long time! I have a sense that up there – because I’m absolutely sure that they’re up there, not down here – that they would have a big smile on their faces. My father was always very curt and a bit strict, so he didn’t show so much as my mother how impressed they were at my career. When I became an ambassador at a pretty young age in the Swedish foreign service, he was a fan of reading books about American Indians, and he always talked about Indians. So he told me: “Jan, be careful now, you are promoted almost too fast. You will have a driver, you will have residence if you go abroad now. Remember one thing: the feathers that you carry now, the feathers on your head – they are on loan.” Which is a pretty good reminder that you are here to serve – I’m here to serve.


UN News: As for the job of Deputy Secretary-General, it’s a very public job and one in which you are frequently second-guessed or criticized for the decisions taken. How have you dealt with that?

Jan Eliasson: Well, first of all, you have to recognize that nobody’s perfect and no organization is perfect. You have to realize that you need to improve this organization, and you need sometimes to sharpen your own judgment. So I think you need a certain sense of humility, a grasp that nobody’s perfect, and you have to recognize if something is wrong.

But, of course, when you feel that the criticism is not founded or that they’re shooting at the pianist – for example, in the Security Council on whether we have a resolution on Syria or not, or if we are attacked personally while doing our best to fight an issue which has to do with peacekeeping, or the Haiti case or sexual exploitation and abuse, and so on – sitting there and being blamed, that is not, perhaps, so comfortable.

But I try always to say to myself: if you have reached that pinnacle, if you have reached that position that you have, you have to expect that you are also the target. It comes with the job, I suppose. But if it’s fair criticism, I think we should take it very seriously, and I don’t mind it, in fact. But if it’s not fair, in my view, of course I can’t tell you that it doesn’t hurt.

UN News: What impact has the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, had on your life?

Jan Eliasson: Dag Hammarskjöld was a great hero when I grew up. I was a student when he became Secretary-General. I followed him very, very closely. I later entered the naval academy, and I was a cadet in the navy, and on the night between 17 and 18 September 1961, I was on a destroyer up in the Baltic Sea, and we landed on an island. I had a radio in the morning of 18 September and I heard that he had died in a crash in Northern Rhodesia then, Zambia now, and this happened to be the day after my 21st birthday. So I felt very deeply that I wanted to do something for international cooperation, for peace and development, and human rights. I think at that time that I was heading for the foreign ministry and the UN.


So he has meant a lot to me, and that’s growing more, by the way, because when his book ‘Markings’ came out a couple of years after his death, I read it at the age of 26 or 27, something like that, and I thought it was a bit mystic, a lot of religious mysticism in it. I didn’t connect as much as I now do, after many years. Now, he is indispensable. ‘Markings’ gives me great consolation and great inspiration. I had a wonderful experience at the UN, one of my most informal ones, when 500 hundred people came to the ECOSOC hall to listen to me read parts from ‘Markings’ which have the meant the most to me, and the Swedish pianist Per Tengstrand played Beethoven, Bach, Grieg, Chopin, in between my readings. I don’t think I’ve had such an attentive audience! I still have people coming to me, and saying they will never forget that moment. That was also what inspired me to bring up the idea with Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic. He came to New York to say goodbye to Ban Ki-moon, and to welcome Antonio Guterres. Over the last few days I have had people coming up to me and saying: “Oh my God, what an inspiration! You brought the music to the UN General Assembly Hall. We all felt the spiritual dimension of our work.”

I think art and culture, and music can play a very important role in reminding ourselves what is universal, and it can also reach our hearts. Diplomacy, is not about shaking hands, diplomacy is touching the hearts, in my book.

UN News: Your work as Deputy Secretary-General has meant intensive discussions and problem-solving on tough topics, as well as long hours and much travel. What toll does this job take on one’s personal life?

Jan Eliasson: I must admit that my family and I have paid a price for this type of life. You need to seriously ask yourself if you have the right balance between personal and professional life. And if your professional life is so intense that you neglect your personal life, your family, your closest friends, then you pay the price. I am very sensitive to this. When my colleagues are working long hours, I tell them: “Please, go home, you have a family.” I am enormously impressed that in the morning when I arrive, I can see the same people that I said goodmorning to in the evening, at seven o’clock. I am, of course, of two minds. I am very grateful for this devotion, this commitment to work, to our mission, to the UN. But, on the other hand, I want my people to live harmonious lives.


I have been lucky. I don’t know how it happened, but I have such a wonderful family. They understand my situation. I try to take advantage of the modern media to be in contact, and also to be intensely with them when I am home. I have been trying to steal weekends when I travel to Asia or Africa, to drop by Europe, so that I can go up to Stockholm or the island of Gotland on the weekends. You really have to make sure that you don’t forget your personal life in order to be good professionally. I’ve seen too many of my colleagues pay a huge price in their personal life, such as through losing contact with their families, divorces, not connecting with children, and paying the price later in life for that. We have to also see each other as human beings.

UN News: When historians sit to write about your contribution to international affairs, what do you hope they will say?

Jan Eliasson: It’s a bit presumptuous for me to speculate on that! I hope that Ban Ki-moon will be and should be remembered for his pioneering work on the climate change agreement, that that could be the turning point to avoid the existential threat to humanity. I played a more modest role on that issue; it was he who was leading that.

I hope that also the Sustainable Development Goals – this new, broader direction for development, as well as seeing development as also an issue of peace and security, and respect for human rights. I also hope that the UN initiative – Human Rights Upfront – will be remembered as the time when we lifted and strengthened the human rights pillar, and put it on par with peace and security and development work. If that is something that is partly due to my efforts, then of course, I would be deeply grateful.

I would also hope to have revived Dag Hammarskjöld’s tradition of pointing to culture, and music in this case, and the spiritual dimension of the work at the UN, and to realize that there is an element of spirituality needed in what we do. We have to go deeper. We have to find the deeper sources of energy. If we get stuck in daily routines and not get back to the basic values, and these include basic human sentiments that come out from music or culture or art, then we are losing the beauty of life, and the beauty of how we can work. I think we should allow ourselves to let that dimension come out stronger because the UN is a very special organization. We would probably have to invent it again, and negotiate it again if we were to abolish it, because it’s absolutely necessary that we have a place where we meet. But we can only meet if we accept the universal values, and that is why we must always stand strongly by them.