The pain on his face is clear as Jan Eliasson speaks about his time in Somalia.
The career Swedish diplomat says the memories of poverty and hopelessness he witnessed there remain with him always. They serve as powerful reminders of what the United Nations can and cannot accomplish.
“I think Somalia was a disgrace in that we didn’t stay the course,” he says. “I can still see this woman who received a bottle of water. She held it to her chest like a child. A simple glass of water, something you and I take for granted, is a precious gift to that woman in Somalia.”
Eliasson was in the impoverished war-torn African nation in 1992 as the under-secretary of humanitarian affairs for the U.N.
“I will always remember what I saw in Somalia,” Eliasson says. “I believe it shows how much more the United Nations can be and the dilemmas we face. We face terrible moral and political dilemmas to live up to our own standards.”
Eliasson assumes the next presidency of the U.N. General Assembly at a time when the body appears somewhat fractured by the war in Iraq, and accusations of theft, sexual assault and other abuses by peacekeepers, as well as the escalating scandal in the Oil-for-Food program with Iraq. He says one of his first moves will be to repair the U.N.’s somewhat tarnished image.
“I think we can very easily change the image of the United Nations,” Eliasson says. “We need to stop talking about Oil-for-Food or the peacekeepers and start talking about Afghanistan and Lebanon and Liberia. Those are three instances where the success is very much because of the United Nations.”
The U.N. organized Afghanistan’s historic elections two years ago and is an ongoing opponent of Syria’s influence in Lebanon. U.N. peacekeepers, including Irish and Swedish soldiers, helped bring about a fragile peace in Liberia, which is one of the main suppliers of cocoa in the world.
“These are things we must talk about,” he says. “We must send this message around the world.”

While changing the image of the United Nations is on Eliasson’s to-do list, the biggest challenge he faces is in helping to reform the world body. The General Assembly, in which every member nation has a vote and a chance to speak, can only pass non-binding resolutions that may or may not find attentive ears on the Security Council.
It is the Security Council that authorizes U.N. peacekeeping missions and just 15 nations sit on it. Only five—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States—can prevent action on a resolution through a veto.
Eliasson supports giving the General Assembly more of a voice in world affairs while also using it to foster what he called “thematic debates.”
“I think the General Assembly should act like a parliament,” he says. “We should focus debate on one topic that will shine a spotlight on the collective will of the world. In a way it will be like taking the world’s temperature. A thematic debate is a demonstrable way to gauge world opinion on a particular topic, something the Security Council could then use.”
While he looks to change how the General Assembly operates, Eliasson admits there is “a growing gap between the Security Council and the General Assembly. We have to give some thought to how we bring back that element of inclusiveness. For some member states, the General Assembly is the only democracy they know.”
He vows to work closely with Secretary General Kofi Annan—whose wife is Swedish—to help bridge the gap between the debating- and decision-making bodies at the U.N. He also says will fully support Annan as he sought to reform the Security Council and U.N. operations.
One area where Eliasson will be invaluable is in evaluating the success or needs of U.N. missions, whether humanitarian or military. Eliasson says he plans to use his own field experience as a guide during his term.
“The litmus test and measuring rod for U.N. reforms must be the differences they mark for people and crisis areas around the world,” he says. “The nightmare of Somalia will forever remind of the urgent need for prevention, for early action and for effectively dealing with civil wars and tormenting ethnic and religious conflicts.”

Eliasson also has another challenge to tackle, one that conjures up almost as many haunting memories as Somalia.

“Terrorism,” he says. “That is one of the major challenges the entire world faces.”
Eliasson came face-to-face with terrorism on Sept. 11, 2001, when he was Swedish Ambassador to the United States. His office faces the Pentagon and he had a front-row seat to the terrible events of that day.
“People always think of New York and the towers, but for me I will always think of the Pentagon and the plane that went down in Pennsylvania that was headed for other government buildings,” he says. “People should know that Sweden was greatly moved by the events in the U.S. We had three minutes of silence in every town, at every office or school, and everything stood still for those three minutes. We realize the depth of the threat of terrorism and we must find its root causes and try to end it.”
The new General Assembly president points to the U.N.’s official definition of terrorism, which is due in September, as one step in that process. He also says that the U.N., in cooperation with “multilateral and regional diplomacy” has to find ways to combat the poverty and hopelessness that serves as terrorism’s breeding ground. “Our main task now is to accept, and live up to, the triple challenges of development, security and human rights. The three are intertwined and affect and reinforce each other.”
Eliasson points to Afghanistan in the 1990s as one of the failures of the U.N. to live up to those principles and points to the nation as an example of how far a country can advance when the U.N. meets its own challenge.
He also says the horrors that occurred in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia after the U.N. left without fulfilling its own mandate prove the world body must always live up to its commitments.
“We cannot continue to say ‘Never again,’ without seriously undermining the moral authority of the U.N. and its charter. The time has come to make a change and start preventing future atrocities such as the ones we have experienced in the 20th century. This is something we must all do and all share in.”

[Based on Interview by Chipp Reid, Nordstjernan]