Skills Honed in Washington Pay Off for Swede at the U.N.

By Nora Boustany
Friday, April 21, 2006

Less than one year into his job as president of the U.N. General Assembly, former Swedish ambassador Jan Eliasson admits that "Washington is more fun."

Champagne-infused opera balls and sunny tennis time were easier to come by at the Swedish ambassador's residence on Nebraska Avenue than on the 48th floor of Trump Tower in New York, where he now lives, or at his stark office at the United Nations, he said.

The irrepressible diplomat changed assignments last summer to preside over the U.N. body. Beginning next week, he will also serve as his country's foreign minister until elections this fall, spending about two-thirds of his time in New York and the rest in Stockholm.

"International issues are national, and so many local issues -- migration, communicable diseases, organized crime -- end up touching everyone. At the same time there is such suspicion. It is quite a paradox," Eliasson said Wednesday, back in town to do the rounds at think tanks and get a quick Washington fix. A saffron-yellow silk tie and hanky, fluffed just so, signal that his role in the diplomatic game is far from over.

"Bilateral diplomacy is more solid; multilateral diplomacy is more fluid and diverse," he said, comparing his ambassadorship with his U.N. responsibilities. "That, I find stimulating."

He relishes spelling out every detail of his efforts to canvass international support for a new Human Rights Council to replace the old Human Rights Commission, which had been criticized for allowing countries with horrible human rights records to join.

"I have a masochistic pleasure to put in 14-hour days," Eliasson said of the five weeks of back-to-back meetings, heated midnight cellphone conversations and rounds of haggling that stretched into his weekends while he pursued his campaign to get the council approved.

After more than 30 consultations, Eliasson came up with a text for establishing the council that would make it difficult for extreme human rights violators to become members. He resisted amendments proposed by Cuba, the United States and other countries, sticking to his guns and principles even after protests against cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad this year led to pressure from Islamic countries to strengthen language on respect for religion.

To his surprise, his efforts paid off. The council measure passed last month by a vote of 170 to 4, with the United States among those voting no. Three countries abstained.

"Every country must agree to have its own human rights record reviewed every three years," Eliasson said. "The General Assembly can now suspend membership of any country on the council if it commits serious human rights violations. This is the first time we have had a suspension clause. As a result, countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe are not applying.

"We abandoned the insistence on having a two-thirds majority vote to bring members in to having an absolute majority of 96 votes for membership. It is a compromise, but not a compromise of principles," he said. Elections for members of the new body are set for May 9.

Referring to the three main pillars on which the United Nations is built -- security, development and human rights -- Eliasson said, "We cannot lose the human rights pillar, which I call the soul of the U.N., and the vote was a resounding confirmation for that."

Asked about the long-simmering standoff with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, Eliasson pulled a small blue booklet out of his pocket. He opened it to Chapter VI, titled "Pacific Settlement of Disputes," confirming that an old idea was making the rounds and being fine-tuned.

The idea is to develop "some type of international system, an international regime with safeguards for the manufacture and supply of enriched uranium," Eliasson said. "It can take a long time to develop and set up, but we need to think of energy."

"There should be an international place to go for power purposes that will be able to provide resources and take resources back for all the countries down the road," said a nuclear expert based in Washington who has been following the nuclear debate and public statements by the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei . "They think it makes sense. That is really the way to go."

The idea first surfaced two years ago during a meeting between ElBaradei and President Bush when the IAEA was struggling to come up with ways to end the deadlock with Iran, the expert said. Diplomats anticipate that the formula will be discussed at a conference in Petra, Jordan, organized by King Abdullah . Participants will include ElBaradei and Elie Wiesel , both Nobel laureates.

Iran rejected an earlier proposal by Russia to enrich uranium on its behalf, which would have allowed Iran to produce energy but prevent it from developing weapons. "Maybe they would change their mind if the process is controlled by the IAEA," the expert added. "It is pretty common knowledge that this is where the director general is going."

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