On Jan Eliasson’s 21st birthday, Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish former secretary-general of the UN, died.
”I heard the news on the radio. At that moment I decided that I must work at the United Nations and follow his path in diplomacy. He was one of my idols and heroes,” says Eliasson, now 66, and the outgoing president of the 60th Session of the General Assembly.
Next week, Eliasson’s career will come full circle: On November 7, he is to be awarded the first Dag Hammarskjold Inspiration Award from the Dag Hammarskjold Scholarship Fund for Journalists for his life-long efforts to promote peace, dialogue and reconciliation through diplomacy. The annual luncheon will be attended by outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and most UN ambassadors.
For the past year, like a monarch on a throne in the splendid General Assembly Hall, Eliasson has sat up on the high UN dais presiding over the meetings of the representatives of 191 nations.
Under his ”rule,” Eliasson is regarded as having been a friend to the Jews in what has long been considered ”enemy territory.” He played a key role, for instance, in the passage of the resolution to have an annual Holocaust Memorial Remembrance Day at the UN. Originally, the plan had a lot of opponents who suggested including other genocides to reduce its impact. As Eliasson noted in an interview with The Jerusalem Post in New York, ”I spoke to my Muslim and Arab friends and asked them very kindly not to vote against the resolution as it was such an important message.”
The General Assembly passed the vote unanimously on November 1, 2005, setting January 27 as the date. According to the UN’s press release, the resolution rejects ”any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part. The Assembly adopted by consensus text that condemns ”without reserve” all manifestations of ”religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief, whenever they occur.”
The resolution also urges member states to develop educational programs that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Holocaust in order to help prevent future acts of genocide.
”We are very proud that the General Assembly took this decision,” said Eliasson. ”Of course,” he added, ”not only should we remember the Holocaust but we should also do everything to avoid horrors like Cambodia, Rwanda, Sebrinica and [now] Darfur.”
Eliasson’s intervention was broader. Even before his accession to the presidency, ”Hatikva” had been sung in the General Assembly Hall at the opening of an exhibit from Yad Vashem in January 2005 – the first national anthem ever to be sung at the UN. Eliasson’s term as president saw the continuation of the recent phenomenon of the UN hosting Jewish exhibitions and ceremonies relating to the Holocaust. There have also been scholarly seminars to discuss anti-Semitism. Annan, with his Swedish wife Nane, the niece of Raoul Wallenberg, at his side, has made speeches stressing Jewish concerns.
For many critics of the near-constant anti-Israel rhetoric of the UN, such developments mark quite a change. And Eliasson, a veteran diplomat (he worked closely with Olaf Palme, Sweden’s former prime minister, mediating an end to the Iran and Iraq war) who has filled a series of prominent positions both with the UN and for Sweden – including ambassador to the US and, briefly, foreign minister – is widely credited with engineering the shift.
ELIASSON NEVER wanted to be a a neutral diplomat, he told the Post. He set out, rather, to be someone who took a stand, made a difference. Eliasson’s model was Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who, while stationed in Budapest during the Holocaust, saved the lives of some 100,000 Jews by giving them travel documents.
He said of Wallenberg, ”I felt his passion and compassion. Nothing in life happens without passion.
”I was angry and dissatisfied with the way the Swedish government had handled Wallenberg’s disappearance in 1945 [he was arrested by the Soviet Army in Budapest; the Russians claim he died later in a Moscow prison], and I think that the strongest effort should have been made [to find him]. I still regret that I wasn’t a diplomat at that time – I hope that I would have chosen a more active line.”
Eliasson was Swedish ambassador to the United Nations from 1988 to 1992 and he witnessed the horrors of civil war breaking out in parts of Africa and in Bosnia. Eliasson and colleagues like Tom Pickering (former US Ambassador to Israel) decided to create a humanitarian dimension to the UN and try to save lives in situations of crisis and war.
This initiative grew into the Department of Humanitarian Affairs – the UN’s office of humanitarian assistance, which is now the major body grappling with humanitarian crises. As the UN’s first under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Eliasson, who has three children and five grandchildren, traveled from sophisticated New York to the dismal camps of Somalia in the fall of 1992 to what he described as the worst living nightmare he had ever experienced. He saw people dying in enormous numbers, and UNICEF workers, Irish nurses, Dutch doctors and Somali doctors working day and night at the camps to try and save them.
”For the dead, there were small paper bags for children and big paper bags for adults: every night three or four small bags and two big ones were transported away,” he recalled.
The experience prompted Eliasson to push to do more about prevention and not just wait until disaster occurred.
He quit the UN for a recuperative rest and taught at Sweden’s Uppsala University. He wrote a book, How to Prevent Violent Conflict, which grew into a European Union program a few years later.
IT WAS at this point that his interest and involvement in the Jewish community grew. On the 50th anniversary of Wallenberg’s disappearance, Eliasson was given what he describes as ”the greatest honor of my life.” He was asked by the Wallenberg family to speak on their behalf at a ceremony in the Swedish parliament. The other speakers were the prime minister and the leader of the opposition.
The connections that led to this invitation, he said, included his longtime friendship with Annan, and the fact that Eliasson’s wife, Kerstin, was a classmate of Nane Annan.
His speech caught the attention of an American audience. (Wallenberg has been declared an honorary American citizen, a status achieved through the efforts of Budapest-born Congressman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor saved by Wallenberg.)
When Eliasson came to Washington as Swedish Ambassador in 2000, Lantos was the person who received him ”most cordially” and he and his wife Annette became very close friends with the Eliassons. Through them he met many prominent members of the Jewish community, including members of the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee. Eliasson became a lecturer on Wallenberg and spoke every year to the Interns of the United States Congress.
Sweden’s connection to the Jewish community continued to grow: Its then-prime minister, Goran Persson, started a drive on Holocaust education in 2000, and Eliasson worked with Persson on this initiative.
There is also now an institution in Stockholm that focuses on training in education in Jewish culture and Jewish scriptures known as the PAIDAIA Initiative. Eliasson is an honorary trustee, and helped secure a Swedish government commitment for 40 million Krouns ($5 m.) for the initiative.
Good friends with Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, Eliasson said he was very happy that Gillerman has become a vice-president of the General Assembly; the last Israeli envoy to receive this honor was Abba Eban.
During his tenure as president of the General Assembly, Eliasson said he went to great lengths to build a stronger link between Israel and the United Nations. ”We have done very important things, but we all know that we have a long way to go,” he said.
On September 12, Eliasson’s successor as president of the General Assembly took office. Her Excellency Ambassador Haya Rashed Al Khalifa of Bahrain, an international lawyer and former ambassador to France, praised him in her acceptance speech for ”making great efforts in advancing UN reform and international peace and security.”
She said she would maintain the path set by Eliasson. From an Israeli and Jewish perspective, that’s quite a mission.