UN General Assembly Recap: From Syria to the Post-2015 Development Agenda
Jan Eliasson, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, discusses the most recent UN General Assembly session.
The Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations was established in 1996 by Gillian and Theodore C. Sorensen to highlight the United Nations and offer a special occasion for its most distinguished and experienced leaders to speak to the Council on Foreign Relations membership.
WEISBERG: Hello. I would like to welcome everyone this evening to the Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations. The Sorensen Lecture was established in 1996 by Gillian and Ted Sorensen to highlight the United Nations and offer a special occasion for its most distinguished and experienced leaders to speak to the Council on Foreign Relations membership. I should say that being a formal lecture, followed by questions, tonight's event is on-the-record.
And with that, it is my very great pleasure to introduce Jan Eliasson. He was appointed deputy secretary general of the United Nations by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last year. He took the position in July 2012.
And he has a resume that makes for amazing reading. You have it here, so I won't dwell on it too much, but I would note that in a period of about three or four years, he was Sweden's ambassador to the United States, the foreign minister of Sweden, the president of the 60th session of the United Nations General Assembly, and then special envoy to the secretary general for Darfur. He has packed a lot in.
And before that, he was Sweden's ambassador to the U.N. for several years. He was the secretary general's personal representative in Iran and Iraq. He's been involved in an extraordinary range of peace-making and peacekeeping roles. And he has also been involved in an extraordinary range of humanitarian roles, and we're going to talk about that this evening, including being the chair of WaterAid Sweden and a member of the secretary general's advocacy group for the Millennium Development Goals. He's a graduate of the Swedish Naval Academy and has a master's degree in economics and business administration.
Please join me in welcoming Jan Eliasson.
ELIASSON: Thank you very much, Jacob. Great to be here in this renowned Council on Foreign Relations with this eminent audience. I look forward to the evening. Slightly masochistic pleasure, people are telling me, but I will try to survive and look forward to being in dialogue with you.
I am deeply honored, of course, to deliver the Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations and join you all in paying tribute to Ted and Gillian Sorensen for starting this series. Many people talk about having a so-called Kennedy moment, but I have something rather exclusive. I have a combination of a John Kennedy-Ted Sorensen moment. This, of course, discloses my age, unfortunately, but as an American field service exchange student in Decatur, Indiana, in the late '50s, I met both of them at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Indianapolis, 29th of March, 1958, and I have the menu to prove it, with Jack Kennedy's wish that I have a pleasant stay in the United States.
Special thanks, also, to Gillian Sorensen for bringing us together tonight. She's been a great friend of 25 years and is a great friend of the United Nations, as you all know, a passionate speaker about the U.N. across the country and in the world, and with more than 1 million frequent flyer miles to prove it, I'm told.
Before we move to the discussion, I want to say a few words about the past couple of weeks in the U.N. General Assembly and possibly what they may suggest about the state of U.N. and multilateral cooperation today.
Last week, in his speech to the member states, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed to world leaders to overcome their unilateral impulses and embrace what he called, and I quote, "the global logic of our time." Another way of framing this challenge is to make the case that, in a globalized world, good international solutions are in the national interest of the member states.
Richard Gardner is in the room, and I picked up that idea from you 25 years ago when you said, "I love my country. That's why I'm an internationalist." Sounds paradoxical, but it makes perfect sense to me. Global problems, which in the end in today's world practically always are national, beg for global solutions. Our fates in this world are more and more intertwined. Our future must be one of ever-deeper and ever-broader cooperation a cooperation across borders.
We may live in an age of what some call a la carte multilateralism, with the G-20, regional arrangements, coalition diplomacy, but the U.N. general debate this year was a reminder, in my view, of the strength of universality and of the importance of global cooperation.
I need not explain to this audience the significance of the Security Council's breakthrough resolution on chemical weapons in Syria. This was the first sign of unity after a painful period of division that has prolonged the conflict and led to serious criticism of the United Nations and the Security Council in the world.
We all welcome, of course, this latest step of the council and recognize the hugely important and difficult task that is before the international community to now safeguard and destroy Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons. The operation hit the ground in Syria within four days of the council's decision, I would say a fast and effective start at any standards.
Still, action on chemical weapons is just one step on the road to peace in Syria. The killing with conventional weapons goes on. We continue to place the appalling numbers before the world, the death toll of over 100,000, the 2 million refugees, the 4.8 million displaced people, and the severely underfunded humanitarian appeals financed to less than half. And there are still those who believe in and vainly hope for, I would say, military solutions. I hope you say the quotation marks.
That's why the secretary general, our mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, and all of us involved in this pursuit now push for the Geneva II conference in November, and we welcome last week's presidential statement of the Security Council on humanitarian access in Syria, sorely needed, and assistance to neighboring countries, not least Lebanon and Jordan. Diplomatic momentum, no doubt, has been created, even if we realize that we have a difficult road ahead, both on the humanitarian and the political front.
The Syria crisis topped the list of topics for speeches and consultations at the G.A. over the past couple of weeks, rightly so, of course, since it undoubtedly is the most serious peace and security challenge in today's world. But as we also recognize that the Security Council recently has been more active than ever in terms of authorized political and peacekeeping operations and in its thematic work on human rights, the protection of civilians, and various issues related to women, women's situations, from sexual violence to their involvement in peace efforts, Security Council Resolution 1325, for the experts.
Concretely, also, during the past couple of weeks, we have taken important steps on some important peace and security challenges. For example, Lebanon, we have launched a group of friends to also deal with not only the humanitarian needs, but also the effects of the Syrian crisis, very serious one, on the country's schools, health system, and, in fact, the whole infrastructure.
Secondly, transitions in the Arab world. Member states came together to support the national dialogue in Yemen, not much recognized, but very important. Continued attention was given to the troubled transitions in Egypt and Libya.
Thirdly, Myanmar, there was intensified focus on the danger of communal violence and the need for greater interfaith dialogue.
Fourthly, Middle East process, peace process. The first quartet meeting took place in more than one-and-a-half years in support of resumed direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and they were both there with their key negotiators.
I would also want to say that we stepped back a little bit from the specific crisis and took stock of where we stand in areas where I think we need to do more, and I think in particular mediation, chapter six of the U.N. charter. It's—I always carry the charter in the pocket, and my favorite article is article 33, pacific settlement disputes, chapter six, all the—all the things we need to do before we go to chapter seven.
Later this month, we will conduct a similar exercise regarding regional organizations. People tend to focus on chapter seven, which relates to threats to peace and use of force, sanctions, but there is a highly underutilized potential, I would claim, in chapter six, again, pacific settlement disputes—it's almost poetry, isn't it, pacific, not even peaceful—and chapter eight, regional arrangements. Isn't that interesting to think of, by the fact that—by the way, that these wonderful authors of the charter wrote about regional arrangements at a time where practically no regional arrangements existed? There was the predecessor of the Arab League and the Latin American OAS, but apart from that, there were no other regional arrangements, and they wrote about it in time. And they actually stated that these problems should be first solved on the regional level, then go to the Security Council.
Here I would also interject a comment apropos the meetings these past weeks on the value of dialogue and of informal meetings in the margins of the General Assembly. This year, U.N. as a meeting place—you've heard it before—was mainly seen through the prism of Iran's diplomatic openings, not least on the nuclear issue. I know there are several interpretations of these openings, but I would hope that these openings are tested, tested seriously. Reducing tension around Iran is a great regional and global significance.
Now, this reminds me of a quote from John Kennedy's U.N. speech almost exactly 50 years ago. He says in the speech, "It is never too early to try and it is never too late to talk," end quote. I wouldn't be surprised if Ted Sorensen had a hand in this formulation.
Beyond the political crisis of the moment, the recent assembly period highlighted some of the longer-term and even existential challenges we face. Several streams of work will converge on the crucial year of 2015, 2015. 2015 is the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals, the MDGs. Substantial progress has been made, for instance, in extreme poverty and education, particularly in Africa. Girls are now reading to learn and read and write to a degree that has never been the case. It's a wonderful step forward in development.
But we need to accelerate efforts in areas where development is seriously lagging, and most notably in two areas that I follow very closely, maternal health, one of the most needed professions in the world, or midwifes. If you want to recommend your daughters or granddaughter to be midwifes, they have a fantastic field of work in different parts of the world.
And the other areas, of course, sanitation. If I'd had a glass of water in front of me, I would have said this is a luxury, a dream for 768 million people in the world; 2.5 billion people don't have sanitation. Two thousand children die every day under the age of 5 in diarrhea, dysentery, dehydration, cholera, and I've seen them die in front of my own eyes. And this we can—we can solve this. And this is the most lagging of the goals, can you imagine? Sanitation.
2015 is also the year we plan to adopt a Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda with the eradication of poverty at its heart. Our hope is for an agenda and a set of goals that will mobilize the world, just as the Millennium Development Goals, the MDGs, have done. I would also hope that the rule of law and the rights perspective—Ken Ross (ph) is here. He reminds me of that always—and institution-building will be for part of this agenda.
And 2015 is the year in which member states have pledged to reach agreement on a comprehensive legal agreement on climate change. The secretary general will convene a climate summit in 2014 to generate new political momentum to reach this agreement, which is of existential importance, in my view.
We may have plans B in our lives, but I would claim one thing. There is no planet B. And we'd better realize that.
The centrality of the U.N. today is encouraging, but the secretary general and I recognize the responsibility this confers on us. And I say very openly, we and the United Nations have to learn from our failings and learn from our shortcomings. Syria, of course, represents a collective failure to stop the killings, stop the destruction, and stop the regional destabilization.
With respect to Sri Lanka, a review of U.N. action at the end of the civil war in 2009 noted what I called—what is quoted as systemic failure of the different parts of the U.N. Member states did not meet the tasks they themselves had set. The U.N. system did not adapt properly, when the final brutal stage of the conflict called for a broader U.N. presence, which up to that point in Sri Lanka had been focused on development.
A main lesson we are to draw from this experience is to ensure that the U.N. system has political and human rights expertise and resources in place when and where they are needed. Equally important is to recognize that human rights violations—this is a very important point to me—human rights violations are our best early warning signals in emerging crises and, of course, that we must act on such signals and have the courage to speak out about what we see.
On behalf of the secretary general, I have led this internal scrutiny for the last seven or eight months, and the work goes on to implement these recommendations, and this is very important work, both the U.N. and, of course, its member states.
With the Westgate massacre in Kenya, and the recent horrific killings of civilians in sad memory for all of us, I'm sure, you will understand that terrorism also was a frequent theme during the U.N. general debate. The degree of, I would say, brutalization and disregard of human dignity and human life in today's conflicts is shocking. Equally troubling is the extent to which this extreme violence is motivated by ethnic or religious differences. The aim of the terrorists is to sow fear and sharpen divisions along these ethnic or religious lines.
The message in response of the world at the General Assembly was, in my reading, that we must not fall into this trap. We must not become numb. We must not become indifferent to this blind rampant violence, which only feeds hatred and polarization.
Ladies and gentlemen, in closing, it's not a banality to say that we are at a crucial juncture, at a crossroads in world affairs. We are making strong inroads against longstanding problems, poverty, but in spite of growing inequalities within our—within and between nations—yes, progress, but there is also growing inequalities—in fact, there are more poor people in today's world living in middle-income countries that in poor countries.
The 21st century promises to finally be the century of women's empowerment. We've been waiting for that, haven't we, 100 percent of this room, I'm sure, in spite of—and here I come to the other side—in spite of cultural gaps, bias and discrimination against women.
Migration should be a powerful positive global force. Development and migration conference last week proved that point. But there is strong—there are strong inward-looking and xenophobic tendencies around the world.
Technology, science is making tremendous advances against hunger, disease and wasteful use of energy, but it also empowers organized crime and raises the specter of crippling cyber attacks. So there are contradictory tendencies. Which side of the fence will we fall on?
But let us remember, finally, people in the world are looking to the United Nations for big decisions. They are looking to the United Nations for big ideas. They are looking at the United Nations, our United Nations, for big changes. Expectations, and not least hopes, are high.
The secretary general and I are determined to make the most of the current moment. From the very beginning of the Arab awakening, the secretary general spoke out and called the leaders of the old order to listen to those—not least the young—seeking change, fully realizing that this is and will be a long and arduous journey. As a child, Ban Ki-moon personally experienced deep poverty and the devastation of war. I know that these memories and values guide his work at the top of the global organization in a time of global turmoil.
And on a light note, let me say that the secretary general also succeeded in luring me back to the organization and to his side after a period away from the U.N. on my part. My wife, Kerstin, who is in the room here, thinks that I'm addicted to the United Nations, and I must confess, she's probably right. The U.N. easily becomes a drug in the veins, as Gillian and Ted Sorensen also must have known and felt when they proposed this lecture series some 17 years ago.
I thank you for your attention, and I look forward to the more informal question-and-answer session. Thank you very much.
WEISBERG: Mr. Eliasson, thank you for those remarks and for the work you do every day. I thought I would begin by asking you—talk about Syria a little bit, because it raises so many questions that are core to the U.N.'s function, and in particular, I wonder what you can say, having observed this period of inability to act, to mobilize intervention, followed by this extremely impressive, rapid mobilization on the arms inspection, and if you could say what—what you would observe about the United Nations Security Council as a body. What does that tell us, that it was unable to act, and then it was able to act very quickly?
ELIASSON: Well, I can—I can say openly that, of course, there was a deep sense of frustration among many, not least the secretary general, that there was no strong resolution guiding the work first for Kofi Annan and then for Lakhdar Brahimi. When we don't have that strong guidance from the Security Council and a unified Security Council, our diplomatic efforts are so much more difficult.
It took a long time. We, of course, had hoped that the escalation of the crisis, the thousands and thousands of dead, the risks for the region, which were more and more evident, would lead the conclusion—lead to the conclusion at the Security Council that this, indeed, constituted a threat to international peace and security.
It took far too long. And I think most council members admit this. And, of course, you may ask yourself, would it be necessary that the wake-up call was the use of chemical weapons? There had been a tremendous amount of suffering already before, but the use of chemical weapons was, of course, such an outrageous step in the escalation of the conflict that that was what I think caused this sense of urgency that, yes, the council had to come together? And I am the first one, together with the S.G., of course, to welcome that this finally took place.
And when that took place, our view is that we should now use that political momentum, hopefully, diplomatic momentum to move both the humanitarian access and on the political settlement. But that's a tough road ahead, and it requires a lot of work, not only from us, but from member states, countries in the region.
WEISBERG: Looking at what happened, would it be possible or desirable, in your view, to limit the veto power of the Security Council?
ELIASSON: It's an old debating issue. Many of us know Sir Brian Urquhart, who knows about the—what happened in 1945. And he gives—gave me the impression there was a great degree of unease among the authors of the U.N. charter when they had to write this thing about the veto.
But I think the—the realpolitik dimension of this was that one of the lessons of the failure of the League of Nations was that there was no such mechanism which made the great powers take this global organization seriously. So this was to make sure that the great powers would take the organization seriously.
It's a fact of life. And to change the veto would mean change of the charter, which is, of course, extremely difficult. When I was president of the General Assembly, this was the most difficult negotiation.
But I think still there should be an ethos developing that vetoes should be used in absolutely exceptional cases. And I would even go as far as to say that it could be even—at the end could be considered a failure that the veto is cast, because as a negotiator, a mediator and diplomat, I feel that the negotiation aspect is so crucial, the Security Council should turn more and more into a negotiation body and realize that the permanent five have this privilege and gift of having that power and that they should—they should negotiate formulas and, indeed, succeed by—negotiate until they have reached that result.
The French came out with an interesting proposal last week, that they said that in cases of mass, mass atrocities, there could be an agreement among the P5 not to use the veto. So maybe they are aware of the fact that this veto—the vetoes have caused reactions in the world, and particularly the Syria tragedy has brought that to our attention.
WEISBERG: So this would be—the idea would be an agreement in advance that in humanitarian—cases of humanitarian disaster, humanitarian intervention, the great powers would refrain from using the veto?
ELIASSON: Yeah. The French proposal was that if 50 nations made that case, and then this was confirmed by the secretary general, then the veto should not be used. It's an interesting proposal. It's a little sign that maybe one needs to go in that direction.
WEISBERG: You've played an important role in the development of the idea of a responsibility to protect. And I suppose to just push the question a little farther, how was the veto used in the way it was used in the Syria case compatible with the U.N. upholding or taking seriously responsibility to protect?
ELIASSON: Responsibility to protect, in my view, is a very important step forward. When I was emergency relief coordinator in the—in the early '90s, there was an attempt to bring out the ideas of humanitarian intervention. That was considered a breach of sovereignty by several nations, not only some of the permanent members of the Security Council, but also actually very, very many in the Africa—in Africa, Asia, Latin America. So that was dropped.
And then I think it was such a stroke to genius to say that, well, if sovereignty stopped intervention, humanitarian intervention, isn't—isn't sovereignty so important that, in fact, you have to protect your own population from ethnic cleansing, genocide, et cetera?
And that turned the whole debate around. And I was so glad that Kofi Annan brought that into his high-level serious study. And then I, as president of the General Assembly, could gather that on the 16th of September, 2005.
We forget that it was actually intended mostly as a preventive tool. We have mostly after Libya thought of it in the terms of, what do we do in the third stage, when you reach the stage of decisions on using force? But I would still say that the principle is more important as an encouragement to member states to make sure that they don't enter that state, a civilian population is exposed to ethnic cleansing, but that we also, of course, with the Libya example, now have to constantly work to maintain this principle, because it is under discussion every year. After Libya, it was a hot debate, and another hot debate took place this year, because why didn't you use it in Syria?
So I think the principle is very correct. What brings it back to the Security Council, Jacob, is, of course, what you just said, that last stage, for the operational part, if the use of force comes into question. It comes back to the Security Council. So it's a sort of full circle, sort of cat and—hen and egg discussion.
But I think the fact that we have introduced something which—if I use the political terms—which leads to the fact that solidarity doesn't automatically stop at the border, but at human beings in need, which is, I think, a goal to aim for. We have taken at least a step in that direction.
WEISBERG: And I think we have here a group of people with an unusually positive and supportive view of the United Nations, but if you go outside of this room, you would immediately start to encounter people with more negative views about the U.N. And if you ask what those were based on, putting aside Israel, which is not so interesting...
ELIASSON: Well, it is.
WEISBERG: It is interesting, but—but we've all been through—we've all been through that argument. I think you would tend to hear things like, the U.N. is ineffective, the U.N.'s bureaucratic, there is a lot of hypocrisy in the way it gives countries that are offenders a platform on issues like human rights. And I guess my question about that is both what you think the state is of the U.N. addressing the legitimate aspects of those criticisms and how much are they amenable to change?
ELIASSON: I think you have to be pretty hardnosed about support to the United Nations. I have had it in my veins as a Swede brought up in—Swedish internationalist, working with politicians that constantly refer to United Nations, as our first line of defense. I remember one prime minister said, everybody liked that, except the minister of defense.
So—but I—maybe with the years, I think we should look at this not only from the—this light-blue perspective of the United Nations and the idea of a world we want to see, which is enough for most of us in this room, I suppose. But I think we should also look at United Nations, international cooperation, multilateralism in the perspective of national interest.
I think that in today's world it's almost impossible to fathom or to make the conclusion that you can solve the global issues on your own or even in a small coalition. It's impossible almost logically, if you look at issues like migration or climate change. You can go across the whole area of global issues and look at the dangers of organized crime, by the way, and cyberspace challenge. We need to simply come to the conclusion, it's not something you do for somebody else out there. It's something you do for yourself or your own children.
So I would say, we have to appeal to the enlightened self-interest. And I think I can make the case for the enlightened self-interest of a good internationalism. But also we—as self-critically—we need to deliver. We need to make sure that we do, indeed, present these formulas, present these solutions, but that also member states realize when they do, they compromise, they do something that, indeed, in the end will serve their own interests.
WEISBERG: High on my list of the U.N.'s great successes in recent years would be the mobilization around the Millennium Development Goals. And you've played a role in that. As that approaches an end in 2015, I wonder how you're thinking about the successor to the Millennium Development Goals, which you touched in your address.
And in particular, I wonder how you strike a balance between ambition and realism, because on the one hand, you know, goals people have talked about such as eliminating poverty by 2030 and another 15 years can be hugely inspiring and motivating and capturing the imagination, but on the other hand, there is—if the reality is the certainty that you'll fall short, there will be criticism, disappointment, and so on.
How do you think about formulating a successor set of goals?
ELIASSON: I think we could learn a lot from the present Millennium Development Goals. They were ambitious, but not too ambitious. They were realistic, and they have been—actually, methods of achieving these goals in 60, 70 countries, part of the national planning.
So I think we need to make sure that the next generation goals and targets are measurable, concrete, hands-on. And I think still, unfortunately, the most important goal must be to eradicate extreme poverty. I don't think many—extreme poverty totally in 2030, but extreme poverty should be our primary goal, in all its aspects, including sanitation, maternal health, the most lagging goals today, by the way.
Then, of course, you in this room are the first generation in history that have to think about the existence of this planet and the future for our children, whether they have a place to live in 50, 60 years. And that means that any goal on poverty eradication has to be combined with the element of sustainability.
So I would hope that the false dichotomy, the false difference between poverty eradication and environmental concerns, climate change action, that that will disappear and that, in fact, these two tracks will merge, poverty eradication and sustainability.
Then I would add—this is my wish list for the negotiators, 2015—I would add also the importance of institutions and the rights perspective, the qualitative measure, because if we don't have institutions that hold us onto this line internally in nations and externally strong institutions, we will not have the energy to do the work forward.
I asked my father, who was a labor union leader in the '50s, what made Sweden, which was one of Europe's poorest countries in the 1920s, believe it or not—in the '30s, there was a drastic change, and my father had 7 years of school, my mother 4. I was then on my way to full education. I asked him, what is it that created our country? What was the difference? And he said, son, three things—good, strong infrastructure that we built for our big country; secondly, good and solid education, which made it possible for you to be the first one to graduate from high school in our history, your mother and me; and the third thing is, strong institutions, honest, strong institutions that we are willing to pay for. And he even made the case that two elections in the '50s had been won by the party that suggested increased taxes.
Well, I say this only that, if you have poverty eradication, sustainability, and combine that with strong institutions, national, international, and put a quality stamp on this, then I think we will have something very solid 2015. And that to me is a great task for the United Nations right now. If we can put that road forward—and, as you said also, realistic, but that requires also that we, if we do those goals well, we need to mobilize others.
We have to work, as we do now, side-by-side with the World Bank, for instance. We have to work with the regional organizations, European Union and others, Latin America, all over, my dear friend (inaudible) we have to work with the private sector. We have to work with civil society. We have to work with the academic world. We have to put the problems in the center, and the glass of water is not a bad example, and then ask ourselves, who can do something about it, in order to really be realistic about the goal, because we have made this an event for diplomats and foreign ministry. Nothing wrong with that, people. But you have to get the finance ministers, the industry ministers, the agricultural ministers involved so that there is a totality around these goals.
WEISBERG: So given the centrality you see for institutions, by which I assume you also mean legal institutions, governance, can you see goals being formulated around civil and political rights growing out of the U.N. universal declaration?
ELIASSON: This is going to be the most difficult part of the negotiation, I think, to add that rights perspective. Even might—what I said about the rule of law and institutions might also be controversial, although there was a very important conference last year, with unanimous decision to set out a number of rule of law elements by the whole General Assembly.
So I think we have now universal support for it. But when you come to that last stage, when you enter into the human rights and enter into peace and security, then, of course, first of all, you enter more and more controversial issues, but you also run the risk of the Christmas tree effect, as we say, when you add too much to it, that you sort of water it down. So that is a very difficult balance in the end for the member states to negotiate.
WEISBERG: Yeah. Well, at this point, I'd like to open it up to questions from the participants. And why don't I just start on this side? Yes.
QUESTION: Oda Aberdeen (ph), the Capital Trust Group. On Syria and the humanitarian issue, as you may have said, it's awful, disgusting. However, if you look at the fight, it seems to me that the regional powers are spending more money on buying weapons than on helping these poor refugees. And many of these neighboring countries (inaudible) they have tremendous imbalances, so I think that issue starts there. You can't expect Indonesia or America to commit resources on the people in the neighborhood.
ELIASSON: Why don't you take three questions?
WEISBERG: Sure, yes, we can do it that way. We'll sort of move around the room. Just—sir, right there. Please do identify yourself.
QUESTION: Stephen Schlesinger from the Century Foundation. The paradox of the U.N. becoming involved in the Syrian issue is that it didn't—it wasn't the U.N., it was the threat of force, the use of force by President Obama that brought about that condition that—that led to the Russian proposal that eventually brought in the U.N. How does the Security Council deal with those issues? If it hadn't been that threat of the use of force, where would the Security Council be today on Syria?
WEISBERG: All right. Let's see. One more on this side. Yes, right there.
QUESTION: Thank you. Peggy Hicks, Human Rights Watch. I wanted to follow up on the excellent work that you and your team have done on the internal review panel on Sri Lanka and the systemic failure that you noted within the U.N. system in response to that. The recommendations of that report parallel in many disturbing respects the findings of the Rwandan panel. So I wanted to hear from you how you will make sure that—that this time those lessons are learned, then, and the steps will be taken, both in terms of, will this report be public? And, secondly, will the U.N. be willing to hold itself up to potentially an external review panel that will look at the extent to which the recommendations are being implemented?
WEISBERG: If you were hoping to give one answer to three questions, I think that probably won't work.
ELIASSON: Well, I can—I will not answer too long, because I agree with the premise of the question that the—the weapons streaming into the country is, of course, something that feeds the conflict, and I wish we could have better methods of stopping that flow of weapons from all directions. So I can only agree with that point.
To Stephen Schlesinger—but that's—that's an interesting political analysis, and I think many do that interpretation. I would say that the combination of the horror of chemical weapons and possibly that the alternative could have been action outside United Nations helped bring about that unity. We've moved during those—that week from a period of fearing to be completely sidelined, if that's been an action outside the United Nations, and then moving into the situation where there was a beginning of a diplomatic process and actually the beginning right now—I think it's almost unreal that we know today, there are people destroying—starting to destroy chemical weapons in Syria. That happens.
And then that hope—that gives us that diplomatic energy and momentum into the humanitarian field and hopefully the political field. I think it's very interesting. Under what brought it about, I will not speculate, but I'm glad it did.
Sri Lanka, this has been one of our most inspiring tasks the last six, seven months to work with this team, these people. First, Charles Peters' (ph) report and Michael Keating's (ph) and the—it was such a good experience also to notice that the sometimes turf mentality that occurs in a big organization wasn't evident. The different departments worked very determinedly and coming to good conclusions and really very substantive conclusions from the Sri Lanka failure.
And I think there are three areas where we will need to do better, and one, of course, is to enhance the culture of awareness of human rights all over, not only among those who deal with human rights, but in any country team, and all of us should have that human rights dimension. It is, after all, the third pillar of the United Nations. No peace without development, no development without peace, and none of the above without respect of human rights. I would add today rule of law.
So the human rights sector will hopefully be strengthened, and with the support, I hope, of member states, because we have to—we have to have the member states on board for this process. Then I have—I'm very interested in prevention, practical aspects of prevention. And I see, really, what I said here from here that the human rights violations are the best sign of crisis coming. When you feel those vibrations in the ground, and the kids can't go to school because of their color or ethnic background or class, whatever, and when the father is tortured, comes back, then that's where you said this is going to be very bad.
And I would hope, also, that the Security Council would remember that they should act on threats to international peace and security and get in there early. So I think if we have a stronger awareness, almost an automatic reaction with their human rights violations, what steps you take to prevent this from going into the disaster, which then costs us so much in terms of lives, money, reputation, and night sleep. That's what we need to do.
Second aspect, protection of civilians. I think there is a false artificial line between human rights concerns and protection of civilians. In fact, protection of civilians is necessary because we have failed to listen to the warning signals earlier on. But then during that protection of civilians period, there are massive violations of human rights. So I would hope that the human rights and the humanitarian community would come together. If there are problems, I offer to mediate between them, because I've experienced both of them.
And the last thing is the self-critical part. We need to act much faster. In Sri Lanka, we had an operation which was basically development. And here comes a huge crisis, with massive human rights violations, conflict, war, and we didn't have the resources, the team, the persons in place to deal with that and report back and for us to go to the Security Council and make the issues. So we need to act much faster. That's the third thing.
When I gave the report to the secretary—and I've tried myself—had worked on it a little bit—I suggested to him that we would not go public until we could prove that we are doing something about it, because I think there are so many reports (inaudible) reports, so we now have a period of implementing this is in the different parts of the U.N. and also starting to have dialogue with member states.
The secretary general mentioned it in his speech. You may have discovered in the speech at the 24th of September. And I would speak—I spoke about it today. It's part of the gradual launch of it. And then we will present it more formally a bit later when we feel that we have delivered on—that we have growing support of member states and the system.
So that's the plan.
WEISBERG: Would you like to take three more?
WEISBERG: We'll do this side of the room, one, two, three.
QUESTION: Thank you. Bob Scott, Adelphi University. Jacob, at the beginning, you suggested that everyone here was in favor of the U.N., it was people outside. I wonder how many people in the room know that, within 30 days, it is very likely the United States will lose its vote and position in one of the constituent parts of the United Nations, which we, in fact, helped create, UNESCO. Could you critique for us, both of you, the consequences of the United States losing its vote and position in UNESCO?
QUESTION: Hi, Evelyn Leopold, long-term journalist at the U.N. You're the expert on the charter, which I am not, and I find a lot of people walking around the U.N., countries, diplomats, as well as some journalists, saying the charter gives nations total rights, you can't interfere, and so forth, and screw the protection of civilians, and yet the U.N. was founded on the ashes of World War II, and we know what happened there. So I'm just wondering, how do you answer them pointing to the charter?
QUESTION: Richard Gardner, Columbia University. In 1962, Sweden had the great courage to put on the agenda of the General Assembly the issue of population growth. This enabled President Kennedy, our first Catholic president, to authorize the American spokesman in the debate to announce that the U.S. would support family planning efforts bilaterally and multilaterally. That was in 1962.
In the 51 years since then, world population has grown from 3 billion to 7 billion. And in many African and Islamic countries, population growth doubles every 25 to 35 years. Now, given your leadership on the development goals and women's empowerment, can you give us any hope that in this situation these goals can be realized?
ELIASSON: OK. I'll take these three. I don't know the details about the UNESCO situation, but I get rather sad every time that countries leave the organization or lose their voting power because they don't pay the dues, because the whole beauty of this organization is universality. One of the most important principles of the U.N. charter is sovereign equality. Sovereign equality is absolutely important. And there are those who think that major powers don't have the same interest in international cooperation because they can handle their problems on their own because of their muscular power.
Maybe that was the case and still is the case in some situations, but I would say that in today's world it doesn't work. You need to really make sure that you work on universal and global basis.
I remember when I was pushing through the Human Rights Council, Ken Ross (ph) and others can know that story, we went for a vote on the Human Rights Council, because I knew we wouldn't get—some countries would not vote for it. And normally in the General Assembly you want to go for consensus. But I felt there wouldn't be a council if we hadn't gone for that vote, so almost sleepless night, I decided to go for a vote.
And then, in the end, it turned out that, unfortunately, the United States chose not to take part. But I talked to so many people that, once the U.S. entered and once others started to warm up to these different positive parts of the council, it has turned out to be pretty good instrument. I got a lot of criticism the first year, but I think I was partly due to that universality was broken by one of the major powers in the world.
So I think that being part of dialogue, taking part in the multilateral discourse is crucial for not only the country itself, but, in fact, with the functioning of the organization, so I'm pretty sad if that will be the case.
The evidence questions. This, again, sounds like a—I always warned about banalities tonight, but the three first words we should never forget of the U.N. charter, "We the people." If we forget that this organization is about improving the conditions for we the people, then we haven't done (inaudible) whether it is peace, security, development or human rights.
Then, of course, one of the great tensions is that United Nations, even if we are to serve we the people, is a place where the nations are represented by their leaders. Some of them are not elected. And some of them are not, of course, living up to—not least the respect for human rights, but it is a fact of life.
And I would say that we have to understand and accept that the United Nations is a mirror reflection of the world as it is. That has to be your starting point, whether you like it or not. But then I was to tell my colleagues, many of them—several of them here today, that we also must remember that we should also stand for the world as it should be.
And I think the task of us all working in this organization is to reduce the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be. So you have to be very realistic about the situation on the ground. Don't fool yourself. Be tough on that. But on the other hand, don't lose the—what this is all about.
And then there is a tension between sovereignty and solidarity. Article 2(7) warns you to get into internal affairs. But as I said, you start to talk about responsibility to protect. If sovereignty implies that you're supposed to protect your population from ethnic cleansing and genocide, well, then you are sort of marrying internal developments into that international body that the United States represents. So I think there's going to be a constant, constant dialectical tension here.
The third question was on population. Well, I'm not an expert on population issues, but I guess we will end up with about 8.5 billion to 9 billion around 2050. Then it's evidently going to level off, according to the statisticians and experts. I think the—I mean, there is—if we were to divide the resources in a pretty fair way and use the resources wisely, we could, without much problem, live with 9 billion people. The problem is, the inequalities that are so huge.
And that also there are new phenomena that changes the image of population growth. The problem is changing because of primarily the fact that, in four, five years' time, 60 percent of humanity will live in urban areas and cities. This is a huge historic change. And that is something that we need to focus on much more intensely, that you will have enormous pressures on infrastructure, on sanitation, on all these issues that are related to the fact that millions of people every month move into poor countries—poor people move into poor countries' urban areas. And that creates a tremendous strain.
I noticed just a couple of weeks ago there is a cholera outbreak in West Africa related to these big urban, sprawling areas with no sanitation facilities. So I think we should see population growth also in the perspective of urbanization and inequalities. Short answer to a huge issue.
WEISBERG: I think we might have time for two or—two more, if we're quick. (inaudible) is that you? Yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah (inaudible) Al-Haya. So I appreciate your celebration of the return of the issue of Syria in unity to the Security Council, but you are aware that impunity was sacrificed. This is when the secretary general had said a bit earlier that Bashar Assad had committed crimes against humanity. So can you address this readiness to put the impunity under the table for now? And can you tell us, what are you going to do in Geneva II that is going to upset the new reality, which is now Bashar al-Assad is a necessary interlocutor in implementing the agreement on the chemical issue? So, please, can you take us back politically, how you're going to deal with that? Because there is a bit of worry on that.
WEISBERG: Was there one more, which would be a final question? I'm not sure if I saw another hand up. No, looks like that's the final question.
ELIASSON: No more questions?
WEISBERG: Oh, wait, in the very back row. Yes, last one.
QUESTION: Hi, Janine Harper, Fuji Television. Today, a group representing Haitian people filed a lawsuit against United Nations. I understand the United Nations will probably claim diplomatic immunity, but I just wanted to know what responsibility, if any, do you feel that the U.N. has for the bad strain of cholera that caused the outbreak in Haiti?
ELIASSON: Of course, we have to accept that we have to deal with issues of impunity, responsibility, accountability, absolutely crucial. The matter is already up, of course, in the issue of chemical weapons that is more war crime, and it should, of course, be leading at some stage to accountability being—being undertaken and also impunity being dealt with.
I don't know. I've seen myself in the past when I was mediating in the Darfur crisis that there is, unfortunately, a relationship between some processes that have to do with the diplomatic movement on a situation and the impunity discussion. When President Bashir was—the warrant was extended to him, suddenly the talks ended. For three months, there was no contact whatsoever.
So there is, of course, a political process that goes on now, but I would say that the issue of impunity, issue of accountability has to come in, and I hope that the Security Council in some stage brings it up. We are reminding them of this all the time.
The Geneva II is going—I said this in my introduction, that it's a very difficult road ahead, and as you know, Rageda (ph), who have followed this so closely, the most important part of the agreement of the 30th of June, 2012, was the fact that there is to be, according to that declaration or document, is to be a transition—transitional government with full executive powers as part of the negotiation process.
This is going to be one of the most important aspects of that negotiation, where one side claims that the leadership of Syria should leave at the beginning of the talks and another claims that that could be decided at the end of it, and that's what the negotiation is all about.
So I would hope that we would have the—as basis for the talks—recognized by all who come to Geneva, that the Geneva formula, including the transition—transitional government, should be the basis, making sure that we do our very best to deal with it, with this huge tragedy.
Now, I can't pronounce myself on the issue of responsibility. It's a matter of the courts, and we are not—we cannot pronounce ourselves on the issue of responsibility. It is a matter for the courts, and we have very strict lines that on this issue of responsibility we cannot make any comments. I'm sorry to end on this rather mute note.
Thank you very much.
WEISBERG: And please do join me in thanking Jan Eliasson.
Valerie Amos, United Nations undersecretary-general and emergency relief coordinator, discusses the humanitarian crises around the world today.
What CFR.org Editors are reading the week of March 2–6, 2015.
On March 16, 2015, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke at UN University on the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations. He discussed the current security landscape, including crises in Syria and Ukraine and tensions in the Asia-Pacific, peacekeeping efforts, and his appointment of the first envoy to youth.