Mr. Jan Eliasson, former Swedish minister of foreign affairs, is a good representative of the tradition of chivalry that Saint Bridget attributed to the Swedish people in the 14th century.  From 1994 to 2000, Eliasson served as Sweden’s secretary for foreign affairs, a key position in formulating and implementing foreign policy.  Earlier, he was Sweden’s ambassador to the United Nations.  During this period (1988-92), he also served as the U.N. secretary general’s personal representative on Iran/Iraq and was chairman of the U.N. General Assembly’s working group on emergency relief (1991), vice president of the Economic and Social Council (1991-92), and chairman of the U.N. Trust Fund for South Africa (1988-92).  In 1992, Eliasson was appointed as the first U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs.  During his tenure, he was involved in operations in Somalia, the Sudan, Mozambique, and the Balkans and also undertook initiatives concerning land mines, conflict prevention, and humanitarian action.  From 1980 to 1986, Mr. Eliasson took part in the U.N. mediation missions in the war between Iran and Iraq, headed by former Prime Minister Olof Palme.  More recently, Eliasson served as a mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and was a visiting professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, lecturing on mediation, conflict resolution, and U.N. reform.

Eliasson was also Sweden’s ambassador to the United States from September 2000 to July 2005.  On March 27, 2006, he was appointed foreign minister of Sweden.  He stepped down with the change of government in late 2006, following the general elections.

He was unanimously elected president of the 60th session of the U.N. General Assembly on June 13, 2005, a position he held until September 11, 2006.  In this capacity, he was the behind-the-scenes protagonist of the reform of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

In his acceptance speech, Eliasson said that this appointment bore “a special significance for my country, since the legendary Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld was born in Jönköping, Sweden, this year one hundred years ago.”  Dag Hammarskjöld’s independence, moral integrity, and unwavering dedication inspired little love from the major powers, particularly the United States and the Soviet Union.

Eliasson has authored and coauthored numerous books and articles and is a frequent lecturer on foreign policy and diplomacy.  For his efforts, he has received numerous awards, including honorary doctorates from American University in Washington, D.C.; Uppsala University and Göteborg University, Sweden; and Bethany College, Kansas.

Mr. Eliasson was kind enough to grant us the following interview, which took place in the historic Casa di Santa Brigida in Rome, a national shrine for Swedes and all Nordic people.

What are the main features of the new U.N. Human Rights Council?

It has been streamlined.  It’s smaller than its controversial predecessor (the Commission for Human Rights), and it should hopefully be more effective.  It will be convened several times per year, not just for six weeks in Geneva in the spring.  But the most important thing is that the member countries should themselves be subject to control in their human-rights policy as long as they serve in the council.  If a country is found guilty of serious infringements of human rights, she may be suspended and lose her membership.  Member countries should also make commitments regarding their respect of human rights, and they will be monitored to ensure that they are living up to those commitments.  This new council has built-in features that the old one did not have.  And it is usually of paramount importance—in politics as well as in ordinary life—for the rules to be abided by.

How do you respond to those who have doubts because of the presence of such members as China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia on the Council?

One could also list a number of countries that did not present their candidacies or whose candidacies were not accepted.  There can be no doubt, however, that several countries have felt that this is a kind of an “eye of a needle” that they have to go through.  And, above all, when you are on the Council, you know that you are to be reviewed carefully.  Therefore, all countries are aware that, if they want to participate in this kind of work, their own activities will be under scrutiny.  I am a practical person, and, at the same time, I also hope I have a vision.  So I find it of utmost importance that the United Nations really provides something that is of real use to the individual person.  My hope is that this new council will be able to play a part in that.  There are so many things to look after: the situation facing children and women; the use of torture in so many places; trafficking in human beings; that slavery still exists in today’s world.  There are so many things to be worked on in a practical way.  I hope that this council will be a sharper instrument than the old one.

Is this just the most-talked-about part of the general U.N. overhaul?  What else is happening?

Yes, it is one of the two large institutional reforms that we have carried through.  There is also the U.N. Peacebuilding Commission, which has been established to ensure that we do not abandon countries that have endured crises and conflicts.  Look at Afghanistan: What happens when you abandon a country as soon as the CNN cameras disappear?  In such instances, we may easily end up entangled in a new conflict, which is exactly the situation in which we now find ourselves.  We have to help reconstruct the country and institutions, and we must carry out the work of reconciliation.  And that is where the Catholic Church, for example, can come in.  I believe that, in this regard, the Catholic Church has a great role to play both in preventing conflict as well as in promoting reconciliation.

The new Human Rights Council is, to some extent, your creation.  Do you have any special recipe, or secret, to make diplomatic efforts successful?

There were some tough negotiations, and I was entrusted with leading them.  When the decision to establish the Council was finally made in March 2006, I was very relieved.  When it comes to diplomacy, I look to the role model of Swedish diplomacy, Dag Hammarskjöld.  If you try to analyze what made him a great U.N. secretary general, you find that he was a very practical man, but he was also a very spiritual man.  You have to have a spiritual element in order to achieve the results that you need to have in today’s world.  There has to be an element of passion and an element of compassion.  Without passion, nothing happens in life; without compassion, the wrong things happen.  It was the spiritual dimension that gave him strength.  He was the father of peacekeeping operations and was one of the fathers of preventive diplomacy.  He was a master of languages—fluent in English, Swedish, German, French.  But he was also a literary figure, a member of the Swedish Academy.  He served as secretary general of the United Nations from 1953 until his death.  He died on a mission for peace in the Congo.  In his briefcase, which was found near his body after his plane crashed near Ndola (in what was then North Rhodesia) on September 17, 1961, was a small copy of the U.N. Charter and an English edition of the New Testament and Psalms, which were always with him when he traveled.

The man you describe is a very interesting figure, one who could not be more relevant to today’s world.  Would you elaborate on Dag Hammarskjöld?

Dag Hammarskjöld was an independent man who refused to bend to the major powers.  Instead, he tried to build a strong United Nations.  His guiding principle was a sense of duty and self-sacrifice combined with what he often referred to as “integrity.”  In the Prologue to a collection of selections from his speeches and statements, edited by diplomat and writer Kai Falkman, we read that Dag Hammarskjöld inherited from several generations of soldiers and government officials on his father’s side “the belief that no existence is more satisfying than the unselfish service of one’s country—or of humanity,” while, from scientists and clergymen on his mother’s side, he inherited “the belief that in the true, radical meaning of the gospels, all people are equally God’s children, to be met and treated by us as teachers of God.”  It’s not surprising that these visions led him to ponder eternal issues.

After his death, a book came out, Markings, in which he describes, in brief sentences and paragraphs, his spiritual life.  When I read them at the age of 26, I found them very lofty and somewhat difficult to comprehend; now, at a much later age, I think I know what he meant.  They are really striking, and I reread them in view of the fact that Sweden launched my candidacy to be president of the U.N. General Assembly on the 100th anniversary of his birth.  They remind me of the importance of an element of spirituality, but, at the same time, that you have to be very concrete.

Can you tell us something about your meeting with the Pope?

I was very honored to meet with His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, last summer.  I felt that the Vatican and the Catholic Church were helping me achieve the results that we ultimately reached and supporting the objective of finalizing negotiations for the establishment of the new council.  The discussions I had with the Pope and the members of his staff responsible for the foreign policy of the Holy See were most rewarding and interesting.  We discussed the need for global solutions to global problems as well as the problems of mistrust and the tendencies in many parts of the world to use religion and culture for political purposes, thereby increasing the gap between different cultures and religions.  We also talked about our roles in facilitating reconciliation in conflicts.  We spoke of the need for working practically to help people who are under repression and who do not enjoy freedom.  To sum it up, we talked about the challenging tasks of the United Nations concerning security, development, and human rights.  This gave me new energy in fulfilling my national and international responsibilities.

Did you also address the challenges posed by Islam?

Yes, we talked in general terms about the need for ecumenical work and the danger of religion being used for political purposes by groups who do not want reconciliation, and about how enormously important it is to strengthen dialogue and to strengthen the elements in the world that work in the direction of reconciliation and dialogue, rather than confrontation.

A recent issue of La Civiltà Cattolica speaks of a renewed interest in religion in Sweden—Catholicism, in particular.  Is this what you are seeing?

I cannot be sure about that, but there certainly is a growing interest in spiritual matters.  I can’t give statistics, but, of course, the fact that Sweden is becoming a multicultural country and that other cultures and religions have a presence in our society has brought about some changes and new tendencies.