A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity
A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity

A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity

Mar 18, 2008

"In spite of being stingy, and in spite of being late, and in spite of being half-hearted, we are making progress," says Egeland. But we must respond to all disasters, not just those that hit the headlines.

Introduction by Joanne Myers

JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to welcome our members and guests.

Today we are delighted to have as our speaker Jan Egeland. He will be discussing his book, A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity, which is his account of the catastrophes the world faces and his work in leading relief efforts, negotiating truces with warlords, and interventions in what many have thought to be hopeless situations.

In reading about our speaker, I noticed that several articles described him as a man who traveled the globe as the world's conscience, bearing witness to atrocities, both manmade and those driven by nature, when he served as United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, from August 2003 to December 2006.

When I learned that Shashi Tharoor was in New York and able to attend this breakfast program, I thought, how perfect to have a reunion between the former UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and the former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.

At this time I ask that you please join me in giving a warm welcome to the UN's former public voice, who will be introducing the UN's former public face, our special guests, Shashi and Jan Egeland.

Introduction by Shashi Tharoor

SHASHI THAROOR: Thank you, Joanne, and thank you all for being here this morning. What a wonderful turnout this is for Jan Egeland.

I must say that I felt a bit hesitant to accept Joanne's offer to introduce Jan, because, as you all know, one of the great pleasures of speaking at the Carnegie Council breakfast series, Books for Breakfast, is the pleasure of being introduced by Joanne. I felt really guilty depriving Jan of what I know would be a terrific, terrific introduction, because of the way in which Joanne always puts together the finest qualities of the author and the book in order to present him to the audience.

But I am pleased, nonetheless, to have a chance to introduce Jan. It has been rare for me in my career to have been able to call somebody else a "boy wonder." Jan has been a boy wonder for a very long time. In fact, I first met him when we both found ourselves sitting in the informal consultations chamber of the Security Council, when I was handling the former Yugoslavia and the peacekeeping department. Thorvald Stoltenberg had just come down, bringing this very young man with him, who I assumed was some sort of assistant/flunky like myself. While sort of chatting with him in very familiar terms, he turned to me and said, "You know, I am the secretary of state of Norway," which was his position at that time, at age 21 or something like that. [Laughter]

Jan has had an extraordinary career, which has managed to transcend both governmental and nongovernmental action, while at the same time being extremely focused on all issues of public policy and urgent humanitarian concern. He has been, as I said, secretary of state of Norway, under that famous and distinguished foreign minister and deputy prime minister, Thorvald Stoltenberg. He has headed the Norwegian Red Cross, which is one of the more impressive Red Crosses in the world and one which has been extremely active in a number of key situations. As Joanne said, he has been the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, in which capacity, I'm pleased to tell you—for a brief while, I was going around being introduced everywhere as the youngest secretary-general of the United Nations. When Jan was appointed, that ended that for me, because he was then the youngest under-secretary-general of the United Nations, and indeed one who brought with his youth that extraordinary combination of idealism and energy that the young and committed, at their best, are able to do.

Jan is today the head of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, NUPI, which is, frankly, one of the finest international affairs think tanks anywhere on the globe. It's an outfit that I have been pleased to be associated with on many occasions before Jan's time. I can vouch for the quality of their research, the quality of their discussions.

But what I think Jan has brought to them is, as well, his abiding and urgent concern for the kinds of issues that really affect people around the world. Jan has worked in some of the toughest situations the world has faced, both with an official title and without. We have seen him on many frontline situations. I have seen him active in Colombia, in particular, but also in many parts of Africa, including as the first and most visible face and voice in Darfur. He has been to Sri Lanka during the civil war.

He was, in a quiet way, in a behind-the-scenes way, instrumental in initiating the political process that led to the Oslo Accords on the Middle East.

So Jan is somebody who is never far when bad news strikes, and he is part of the good news. There used to be an old cliché about television here, that if it bleeds, it leads. In the last 10 or 15 years, I have been able to see that, if it bleeds, Jan leads.

I'm very pleased that this gentleman, who in so many ways has been a voice of the international community's conscience, a figure who has brought the best of human qualities to his job at the United Nations, is now here to share with us, as a private citizen, as an author, his reflections on the urgent humanitarian challenges facing the globe.

Please give a warm welcome to Jan Egeland.


JAN EGELAND: Thank you so much, Shashi. How can I live up to that, really? Very, very hard. I cherish our time together in the United Nations.

I'm so pleased to see friends here, many good friends—journalists, one who was a fly on the wall and another one who was at our press briefings; my host so many times, Johan, the Norwegian ambassador; many other good friends—my host in Greenwich Village is here.

For me, it's a new life. When I left the office and my good colleagues there, my professional circle was always warlords, dictators, guerilla leaders, mass murderers. When I now leave the office, I meet people like you, who will serve me coffee and will treat me very well, and who seem to like me. I like you. They didn't like me; I didn't like them. It has changed. It has changed for me, really.

Why this book? I think, perhaps, the number-one reason was some of the goodbye interviews. Warren and The New York Times, Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC, all of them did goodbye interviews. They wanted me to sum up—one of the final questions was always, "Are you depressed and disillusioned, or are you very depressed and disillusioned?" [Laughter]

Then I felt, I don't think they have really understood what I have seen. Yes, I have been to nearly all of the war scenes, disaster scenes of our time, but I come out an optimist. I saw many more times that we succeeded than we failed. That message I hadn't gotten across, in spite of all of the 1,000 press conferences and interviews. I hadn't been able to get across that we are making progress. In spite of being stingy and in spite of being late and in spite of being half-hearted, we are making progress.

I tried to give some examples of that. It's very clear that in the tsunami, we woke up to a disaster like nothing else. It was the second day of Christmas. It was ticking in news every single hour, making it worse. There were 12 countries involved. Two continents had been devastated. The prediction was that a lot of people would die, on top of the 227,000 people who died in one minute, being crushed by the tsunami.

Long story short: Close to nobody died because of lack of relief, lack of support, lack of food, water, supplies, et cetera. Ninety countries helped. Thirty-five militaries helped. The United States military did a fantastic job in Aceh. The Indians—which just shows the new world—did a fantastic job in Sri Lanka. India did not ask for help, even. They could take care of most of their own thing. It just shows that the world is getting stronger; the capacity to act is getting stronger.

Northern Pakistan, a similar example. I came there the fourth day after the earthquake. The challenge was the following: 3.3 million people had lost their roofs, were homeless. We were in the Himalayan Mountains, and it was four weeks until winter would descend. In all previous times, one would expect potentially hundreds of thousands of people to perish. That winter, when we did service—we did nutritional service, other service, the next spring—we could see that it was the same calorie intake or better than a normal year, there were more girls in school in Kashmir than in a normal winter, because the Pakistanis and the world community worked very well together. We had more than 50 helicopters shuttling shelter material up into the mountains.

The same with Darfur, which is seen—and rightly so, in many ways—as one of the failures of our generation. But let me just mention one thing. It was predicted in the summer of 2004, when we got access for the first time—it took a lot of effort, placing it on the Security Council agenda, placing it in the world media, getting maximum pressure for us to get access to Darfur after having been blocked—when we really saw how bad it was, it was predicted by many, including by USAID, that anywhere between 300,000 and 1 million people would die that winter, because it would be impossible to reach them. Nearly immediately, it went the other way. Mortality went drastically down, and we were coming out of the 10,000-a-month deaths that were in this group, rather than having a tenfold increase that very winter, because of effective humanitarian action.

However—the big "however"—what I saw as a humanitarian were two things.

Number one, it's not enough with blankets and it's not enough to keep people alive if there is no security and, now, durable political solutions. The story of Darfur, as I see it, is that we treated it as if it was a natural disaster, whereas it was manmade, from A to Z, as a war. It is exacerbated by climate change, but it was manmade, as a disaster.

Therefore, we should have been able to wake up not only Washington and London, which had big legitimacy problems vis-à-vis an Islamic, radical government. We shouldn't have had to wake up China, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, the four biggest trading partners of Darfur. We should have been able to wake up much more the Arab countries that have influence on Sudan.

Long story short: There were two ceasefire agreements, which are described in the book, in that startup period in 2003 and the spring of 2004, and they were not enforced, because there was nobody, really, to try to enforce them.

The world woke up for political and security action too late. I believe, in this country in the old days, they said, "Send the Marines." Now it's, "Send the humanitarians. They will keep them alive, and we can maybe forget about it."

Well, we keep them alive, until they are massacred. That's the whole story of Srebrenica. I was also in the Balkans, as Shashi said, working with Thorvald Stoltenberg. I was in Srebenica. I could see they had gotten food and tents and so on. Then they were massacred.

That, in many ways, is what we are doing to Darfur. We keep them alive, but we don't protect them.

Another lesson is, of course, also the unpredictability of our generation of great achievements and great potential. In the tsunami, in the Pakistan earthquake, we are great. In many humanitarian operations, we have been great.

In the Lebanon War, I explain how, in the end, after two hesitant weeks, the United Nations clanked into action. There was maximum pressure on Hezbollah and their partners, and the Israelis, with their enormous response into Lebanon, to say, "This is senseless." I coined it "the war which only kills children, not soldiers," on either side. And it's fundamentally wrong, such a war.

We got a ceasefire. We got a withdrawal of forces. We got a UN force on the ground, I think, in four weeks. Imagine that, compared to Darfur. It is not a durable political solution, but the 1.2 million people who fled in two weeks and who could have been refugees today could return two months after they fled.

The world worked as it could. It showed its full potential. The big powers worked together in the Security Council.

Compare that to the Congo. I often use the Congo as an example because many do not know—and I try to describe it here—that the Congo is the biggest loss of human life on our watch. Five million people have died since 1998, about, according to the excellent American organization, the International Rescue Committee, which does these very scientific mortality studies. Five million people died.

I hope, Johan, if the whole population of Norway, which is close to 5 million, perished, people would notice. I hope you would all notice that we were all gone.

So why didn't we really notice more what happened in the Congo? I think it's because it's Africa, and it's non-English-speaking Africa, perhaps.

So there is no predictability. We are willing to do a lot in northern Iraq, we are willing to do a lot in Kosovo, we are willing to do a lot in Lebanon, we are willing to do a lot in the tsunami, and not quite so in places like the Congo or the Ivory Coast or Burundi or Guinea-Bissau, Portuguese-speaking Africa, or Somalia today, which is the only place on earth with no functioning government, still. Imagine a generation with no functioning government, no school enrollment, and with endless misery.

So the unpredictability is one of the other lessons learned. We need to be predictably good for all. I think we can. It's a question of will, but it's also a question of making us more operational. In this, perhaps some of the humanitarian tools can be used by the political tools.

I have had the honor to advise, a little bit, the United Nations since I left on making it more operational on the political side, so that we do what we do now in Kenya. Kofi Annan, supported by the United Nations, is doing well there. Of course, it's Kenya. There are a lot of journalists there, in Nairobi and so on. It was very swift and good action.

A third lesson, which is, perhaps, more controversial, actually, but which I still believe in—I believed in it when I was in my most recent UN job—I think we have to speak the truth always as we see it, feel it, hear it, smell it, when we visit. We have to visit the trenches, if you like.

That became controversial. There were five heads of state who were after my scalp and wanted me to be gone from the United Nations. I was at times even criticized by some colleagues for taking too big risks on behalf of humanitarian work, because there is a real risk that you may be thrown out by those military/political/ethnic leaders whom you criticize so severely.

But my very strong sense is that if UN envoys, if international diplomats do not speak the truth about what is happening in the Congo and Darfur and northern Uganda, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Gaza, who will? Those who will are the blatantly partisan groups whom nobody believes in. The voices must have also predictability in having their case presented to international public opinion.

I felt that that worked, to some extent, well. The problem again was—a further lesson—that it was not followed up by predictable action by those countries and leaders who could best push the cause in the various cases. Let me give an example.

Clearly, Zimbabwe is falling apart. I had an epic clash with Mugabe in his office, and also in the media afterwards. I called it a "meltdown." Why is it a meltdown? Because the average life expectancy has gone from 66 years to 35 years, in peacetime. I couldn't find another word. He then called me a liar and a hypocrite and whatnot.

The United Nations can, I think, and should speak up on what is happening, give the information, the basis to act. But the United Nations is not going to unlock it. Those Western powers who are, understandably, very outspoken on this, like the U.K. and the U.S., cannot either. Why? Because if you look at history, the U.K. and U.S. were not that keen on criticizing white racist Rhodesia. On the contrary, one of them helped create it. So for them now to say, "We are really your moral judge. What you're doing as a black liberation struggle leader"—it doesn't work. It is South Africa and the neighboring African countries, who are on the receiving end now, as people are fleeing Zimbabwe, who have to lead it, just as the Asian trading partners of Sudan should have led the Darfur struggle, just as the U.S. must push the Israeli-Palestinian conflict consistently, throughout presidencies, and not be on-and-off and on-and-off.

So that is one of the lessons seen from an observer in the trenches: You have to have predictable leadership by those who can really push it and lead on the international issues.

I think multilateral action may have a little bit of a renaissance, really. I hope our successes can be better on one front, in getting out the message that we are succeeding and that it's even cost-efficient. Let me give you a couple of figures. Maybe you know it; maybe you don't.

What you will know, probably, is that the cost of your country in Iraq this year, 2008, is $157 billion, in the direct allocations to the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and $36 billion for Afghanistan. The whole UN budget for all agencies and all programs and all activities—military security, peacekeeping, peacemaking, environmental, humanitarian development, et cetera—in the whole world, is $20 billion. Compare that also to $6 billion for peacekeeping.

So you could say, for example, that it's one-sixth of the allocation to the Afghanistan program that the United Nations has for all peacekeeping in all the world, which has led to or contributed to peace in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, large parts of Congo—not all, but large parts of Congo—south Sudan, Ivory Coast, East Timor, Kosovo, hopefully—even though it's tricky now—and a couple of other places.

Liberia, in my view, is a triumph for U.S. work with the United Nations. If it hadn't been for the U.S., we wouldn't have had this kind of a robust operation in Liberia. Liberia was the place where they specialized in chopping limbs off, heads off, child soldiers torturing other children. Today Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the female, good-governance leader of Liberia. There is peace there. There is economic growth there.

The U.S. led it in the United Nations. It was very clear—a successful operation there. How much did it cost the U.S.? Twenty-two percent of about $1 billion a year, so $220 million. Two hundred and twenty million dollars is much less than $36 billion or $157 billion, and it led to peace in a country, through U.S. action.

I think this cost-effectiveness of multilateral action will get out, should get out, and we will be able, then, to get a new and more positive deal. We are at fault, as well, at the United Nations for not explaining ourselves better to the U.S. public and political opinion.

We also need to do that with the Arab world. It's one of the things I really saw as I traveled.

I have traveled to 110 countries since I came the first time through New York on my way, as an 18-year-old, to Colombia, Latin America, to do the first volunteer work in a Catholic relief organization.

In the 110 countries that I have visited, one of the things you see is that, in the end, the multilateral organization, including the United Nations, is unpopular in parts of the West, including the United States, because we are seen as pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli. If you go to the Arab world, we are seen as very unpopular because we are so under the thumb of the U.S., pro-Israel against the Palestinians.

So it's a jackpot of not being able to get out the message of what you are really doing and what the real potential is, in my view, of multilateral work.

Looking at now there being 50 percent more peace and less war—not well-known; it's a fact—50 percent more peace than in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. At that time, there were 10 genocides. Now there is one or two.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there were between 10 and 20 military coups per year. Now it's between two and four.

For the first time ever, fewer than 1 billion people live on less than one dollar a day because of economic growth, especially in Asia. But I still call it A Billion Lives because the other side of the story is, of course, that 2 billion people live in plenty now. It's not a few million people; it's 2 billion people who live in plenty. If you have a couple of billion people who live on close to or well above $100 a day, we should be able to lift out the remaining 1 billion who barely survive on less than one dollar a day—and who are being abused. Women are raped, children are being forced to be child soldiers, still, in the remaining conflicts. If you have fewer conflicts to solve, let's do more to solve the remaining conflicts that are still there and that are crueler, on average, against the civilian population than earlier.

So that's my introduction. I look forward to our dialogue. Thank you.

Questions and Answers

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much. I would like to open the floor to questions. Shashi?

SHASHI THAROOR: Jan, that was terrific, as one can only expect.

I want you to go a little further, though, into the issue of getting the message out. I remember, the week you were appointed, before you even took office, that I took you out to lunch. One of my requests to you was to please speak out and use the media as an ally of our cause. You took that very literally. I'm delighted. You were certainly the most visible and audible Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs that the United Nations has ever had.

But in the process, as you know, you also ended up attracting some flak—the comments after the tsunami that perhaps people were being stingy, which got you a rocket from Washington, other comments.

The question that comes from that is, because you also had in your career aspects where you worked very quietly behind the scenes, as in the Oslo case and so on, what do you say to those who argue that, on balance, humanitarians are more effective when they are quiet and performing behind the scenes, and not alienating governments, since without governments, nothing can be accomplished?

So that is a key question.

The second thing, if I may, is something you did not address. I remember that the day you joined us at the United Nations was the day that the bomb went off in Baghdad, killing one of your distinguished predecessors, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and so many of our colleagues.

I wonder whether you would share with the group here your reflections on this new element, where it's not just the billion lives that are in danger from the kinds of tragedies that humanitarians are concerned about, but UN staff and humanitarian personnel themselves are being targeted in today's environment. How does that affect and complicate your ability to do the kind of work that the United Nations and humanitarians around the world normally do, which usually is not well done behind barbed wire and flak jackets and in tanks, but requires openness and access to people, in conditions where, as in Iraq today, it's almost impossible to guarantee the security of humanitarian workers?

Two questions. Thank you.

JAN EGELAND: Thank you, Shashi. These are very key questions. The answers have to be short.

It was the most unreal and frightening thing. I landed at Newark Airport to start briefings that day for the new job, and the breaking news on all of these TV screens that are put up—because the lines have become so long post-9/11—these TV screens had, "Breaking News: UN bombed in Baghdad." Before I had made it through the long line, it said that Sergei Vieira de Mello, who had called me repeatedly from Baghdad to discuss my new job, which he knew so well, was dead.

It was the worst day in the history of the United Nations. Our friend Kofi Annan went from black hair to white hair in the course of that period.

Indeed, it is a watershed when we go from just preparing ourselves to survive in crossfire with militias, with child soldiers, with drunken soldiers, with mines, and so on—we have lots of procedures to survive in such circumstances, but we do not know how to survive when a well-financed, ruthless organization plans for one month to kill you. It was a one-ton bomb. It took many weeks to assemble it. It was placed exactly at the right place to cause maximum damage.

It is in Iraq, in Afghanistan, Algeria, Somalia so far that we have seen this. In the majority of the places, we have not seen this phenomenon. If it comes, it will be—I pray to God not, because we don't know how we can handle this.

I argued very strongly—I was, in the end, the lone voice, you may remember—for us to stay in Baghdad. That's the humanitarian impulse. If you say, "All able-bodied go to the lifeboats and all of the local women and children stay behind," it's not good for humanitarian work, for relief work. But after I was sent to Baghdad and there was a second bomb against us and then they bombed the International Red Cross, we had to throw in the towel and leave.

Now, of course, we are working through excellent local staff in Iraq, and some international staff as well, which is also the way we work in Somalia. But remote control is a bad way.

On the speaking-up, I discuss it here. We did the Oslo Accord. I describe a chapter called "The Birth, the Life, the Death of the Oslo Accord," which was the secret negotiation that I led, with Thorvald Stoltenberg and Johan Jørgen Holst, with Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul, also here, working with Johan Løvald.

We were four people. The reason we succeeded was that we were the best in the world at shutting our mouths, basically. It could not have happened in Washington, because it would have leaked, the secret channel. If you work in a political negotiation to make two parties make a very difficult compromise, secrecy is needed until there is a deal. That, then, should be scrutinized democratically and openly by the press and by parliamentarians.

If you work on human-rights work, humanitarian work, I think speaking the truth is the only way. If you, for strategic reasons, say, "No, there is not rape here in Darfur. The Muslim tradition prohibits that, so there's no rape in Darfur"—some organizations were sort of entering into that kind of agreement, because they would get more access to the abused women. It is a very wrong policy, because it means it will continue.

So humanitarian work, human-rights work, needs speaking up.

QUESTION: Jan, I was intrigued by everything you said, but in particular when you were talking about the failure to wake up other countries. The Darfur situation is almost unique in how the United States and Americans—my son, who is at college—the protests on his college campus are not about the war in Iraq, as they were about the war in Vietnam when I was in college. They are about Darfur. There is an enormous amount of public attention to Darfur.

Yet these days, those people, like yourself, who believe in multilateral action and international organizations going into these situations tend to increasingly look upon regional organizations as one way to go more effectively, because countries often object to real outsiders, like Europeans or like Americans, moving in.

Yet regional organizations tend to let us down when it comes to humanitarian concerns. I have in mind, for instance, ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], which has had such little reaction to the atrocities committed against monks in saffron robes. What is a greater symbol of peaceful demonstration than that in Asia? Yet Southeast Asians themselves have not done very much in the case of Burma.

The African Union has done what it could do in the case of Darfur.

But Zimbabwe you mentioned. The principal defender of Zimbabwe right now is South Africa. The South African ambassador—and I don't mean to criticize him personally—happens to be somebody who was in exile, living in Brooklyn, in the days when the apartheid regime was being punished by United Nations sanctions. In those days, he would give speeches all the time, go on radio programs here, criticizing the United Nations for not being tougher and criticizing, in one case, the first President Bush for relaxing those sanctions at one point. Yet he is the first one to stand up now and say, "Hands off Zimbabwe. You have no business messing there."

I'm sorry for this long question. My question is, in the wakeup call, don't we need to wake up these regional organizations to their responsibility when it comes to humanitarian issues?

JAN EGELAND: Indeed. In a way, that's my whole point. We have to wake up, we have to push—there is where the college kids of the United States, the pension funds of the United States—the whole very lively debate about "let's help Darfur; let's help other places," has to target, in my view, more strategically those who can really do it. Increasingly, it seems, it's not Washington or London or Brussels. It's China or India or ASEAN or South Africa or Nigeria or Brazil or whoever.

But then again, don't be too pessimistic. I'm an optimist. The ASEAN had its first pronouncement ever in its history on a human-rights issue, which was Burma. They have gone from zero to 1 on the Richter scale. We want them to go to 9. But it's better with 1 than to remain at zero. We can build on that.

On Zimbabwe, the point is, if the U.K. and the U.S. could perhaps step down a little bit on Zimbabwe and try to push South Africa and SARDEC, it might help.

I often tell this story about Fidel Castro, who came to South Africa at the G77 meeting many years back. Of course, he was the most popular leader of all, next to Mandela. There was a long line of other heads of state who wanted to be photographed with him and have his signature on their tie and so on.

A journalist asked him, "Mr. Castro, how can you be so popular after so many years?"

He said, "I owe it all to the United States." [Laughter]

Of course, that is a little bit the story on Mugabe. He's the one really fighting rich white farmers, the West, the rich, the top dogs. We are giving him a deal here which he shouldn't have.

The regional organizations have to be empowered, have to be pushed, and we have to be more strategic.

In the United States, I hope the focus on Darfur will continue. I would hope there would be more on Colombia and Gaza and the Congo as well.

QUESTION: First of all, thank you very much. All of your work has really been very important.

I have an interrelated question about your first remark about unpredictability, and therefore response is what the United Nations does. But it would seem to me that many issues really are predictable and that the fact is that people choose not to look at these issues before they explode. Was Kenya really unpredictable?

That relates to my point about the word "prevention." All the work of OCHA [UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] and many other organizations is essentially reactive. Once some crisis explodes, a political crisis, you go in as best you can. It's really important. But it seems to me there is very little of prevention. This is something that many Nordic countries have talked about for over a decade, prevention.

Do you see a capacity for prevention in the United Nations system that is not being developed? What recommendations would you have to be able somehow to go in before these crises absolutely explode?

JAN EGELAND: Prevention is better than cure, by far. It was often my dilemma, talking with my colleagues, who were envious—"We saw you on CNN again last night. I wish I would have that interest for my work for small island states who are trying to adapt to climate change," which is a huge issue, but which is a slow-onset issue and less easy to package for the 20-second sound bites of the BBC or Al Jazeera or whoever. Prevention is the only way of getting out of it.

One of the reasons we are now having all of this progress on so many fronts is that, after all, more has been invested in prevention and there has been economic growth, which has spread. There has even been South-South cooperation within Asia, for example. That has been quite remarkable.

So prevention has to happen with early warning on two fronts. One is the political one that you alluded to. It didn't take a rocket scientist to find out that every time you have elections in Kenya, there is ethnic violence in the Rift Valley. How come people were not pre-deployed, that Kibaki did not have hands around his neck ready to strangle him if he did not agree to the outcome?

Still, the glass is at least half-full. There was a lot of attention for Kenya. That's why, in five days, your political envoy was there, Kofi Annan, his people, et cetera.

Much less so in the Central African Republic. Who speaks about the Central African Republic around here? It's the bottom of the pit, really, in terms of political violence, gender-based violence, et cetera.

So political action has to be preventive and can be connected with early warning. Early warning is very good now. We have red countries, we have yellow countries, we have green countries, we have blinking red countries, and so on, which are reviewed in all of these early-warning framework team exercises in the United Nations, for example. The problem is often to tell the leaders, "Watch this place. It's going to explode. Please do something now."

Darfur—I tried to say that it was a terrible disaster in 2003. It took even my own country, Norway, and Washington six months to really react. Of course, five months after, as I describe in the book, the U.S. declares genocide—in a place that it took six months to discover existed.

The other area of prevention is, of course—I have no time to go into that; I should have mentioned it—the biggest cloud on the horizon is climate change, by far. It is happening. I'm going from here to a meeting on climate change and the potential for conflict in the Sahel now.

As Norwegians, the threat seems to be the end to skiing. In Sahel, it's the end of grazing land for nomadic people, who are arming themselves, the Tuaregs, because they see the land as farmers. In that respect, Darfur has a climate-change aspect. There are not enough places to relocate the people of the camps now, because the climate is so much changing and the growing population.

So adaptation, mitigation, climate change is a typical thing to discuss. In Copenhagen, prepare yourself for decisions which will cost trillions of dollars in terms of prevention, mitigation, adaptation.

QUESTION: Thank you for a wonderful speech.

I wonder, for the billion lives you are talking about in your book, what is the feasibility of aiming at demilitarization in those countries? Obviously, it would have to be done both on those who supply the arms and on those who buy the arms, at the expense of not buying food, shelter, proper water, et cetera.

JAN EGELAND: Demilitarization is very difficult, to put it mildly. However, I'm a great fan of more sanctions. I think that's part of the whole responsibility-to-protect discussion which comes out of the Darfur debacle of everybody. People believe that will lead to a new kind of activism in terms of humanitarian, Western invasions. There is a whole array of things you can do, short of military intervention, to make it as attractive as possible to do the right thing and as unattractive as possible to do the wrong thing—of course, arms embargoes. It's a good sign that the world is interested in watching. But even more effective, often, is to revoke the visas of the leaders, freeze their foreign assets—really try to take the leaders.

I believe the International Criminal Court is a great step forward. I think dictators sleep less well at night now than they did.

Demilitarization is difficult because of the proliferation of small arms.

Read the book. Don't get me started on that. I have a long thing on that.

QUESTION: There are a couple of things that you mentioned that I would like to come at from a very different point of view. I would like to recall a couple of speakers who have appeared here in the past.

The first is, the strategist Edward Luttwak who somewhat controversially said that, really, you can't solve those conflicts through resolution, until one side or the other wins. Then you have a victor's peace which is imposed.

The second is, David Rieff, now with The New York Times, in his book A Bed for the Night, really criticized the humanitarian organizations as being facilitators of some of these conflicts. You mentioned that a little earlier, that you can keep the people alive, to a certain extent, but you don't resolve the conflicts.

Regarding UN involvement, why should they not be targeted by the groups that are in these conflicts? They are involving themselves in conflicts that have not yet been resolved by the sides that are competing. So they are seen as interlopers. They say, "Okay, we'll take care of you. Get out."

So why should the United Nations continue to do that, with the expectation that they will not be targeted?

JAN EGELAND: There are two or three questions there. The last one is an important one.

The Red Cross has survived on the battlefield since 1863, with its red cross, and later red crescent, emblem. The whole point that has been portrayed successfully in nearly all conflicts was that an impartial relief organization is good, because they take care of their civilians, but also our civilians, their prisoners of war, but also our prisoners of war. The noncombatants—it's a good thing that somebody cares for them. We have a political conflict, and we want to fight to the end, but we don't have a quarrel with these children.

That has worked more than you would think. Often, the military would say, "No, no. In war, always, everything has been legal." No. In the Second World War, the Holocaust was the tremendous area where it failed, and on the Eastern Front it failed. On the Western Front, mostly, the Geneva Conventions were respected, even in the Second World War. Nazi Germany upheld many of these, in many circumstances, because they themselves had so many prisoners, et cetera. The reciprocity is part of it.

With these terrorist organizations, it is not clear what they want. It's very clear what they are against. They want to tear down everything.

We were not pro this invasion, but were pro building a good Iraq. We want to build that Iraq; al-Qaeda and company want to tear down what is being built, including us, as part of the builders.

Yes, that is a new situation. I follow you on that.

On whether humanitarians are part of the problem or part of the solution, we are part of the solution. It is unethical to say—I'm not Dr. Mengele, who would say that maybe if I withdrew from this area and mass starvation happened, finally the parties would understand that they need to clinch a deal and make peace. We can't do that. There is a moral imperative to help the vulnerable.

However, I follow completely this thing that we are there to advocate durable solutions. In the Congo, in Darfur, and so on, I have controversially asked for more soldiers, more security, more effective peacekeepers. Some of my good humanitarian colleagues have said, "Don't even touch it. We're just there to save people today and then again tomorrow, and then again and again."

In a way, there are two schools of thought here. I'm in favor of those who also advocate for political and security solutions.

QUESTION: You touched on the question of the increasing need for humanitarian actors to get security to actually access victims of war. It seems NGOs, and also the United Nations, are struggling between being neutral, as you were mentioning, impartial, while at the same time working to get access. Sometimes that means cooperating with the military or having peacekeepers there. You see this in Afghanistan and Iraq, in particular, and perhaps also in Sudan.

I'm wondering about your view of how NGOs in particular, but also the United Nations, can go forward in balancing this, being impartial, but at the same time depending on the military. How do you go forward?

JAN EGELAND: It's very, very difficult. Somalia is a case in point. Most humanitarian groups in Somalia take armed escorts from the warlords, because the alternative is to either get killed or to withdraw, it seems. But it doesn't look good to be guarded by a warlord. Why a warlord? Because there is no effective international presence there.

It was a big, big dilemma for us in Iraq, Baghdad, to move our folks—we made a point of having this Canal Hotel, which was lightly guarded. Sergio courageously said, "It is a sign that we are not part of the occupation. We want to help build a new Iraq." We were bombed twice, and now our people live in the Green Zone. How do we look impartial to the various tribes if we go in and out of the Green Zone, so much identified with the Americans?

The imperative is to help people. You do what it takes to help people and you try to be as impartial and as neutral and as independent as you can in that.

Should you shake hands with Joseph Kony? I'm among the few who have met the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army—arguably, the worst terrorist organization on earth, kidnapping 20,000 children. I did that because it was part of our efforts to get cessation of hostilities, which have succeeded since. For two years now, they have not attacked the civilian population. Children are coming out. Hundreds of thousands are returning.

But I was criticized, including by people connected with the International Criminal Court, to shake hands with a man who had an arrest order on his head, and so on.

I live, in a way, by what I heard from an old Red Cross colleague in Geneva, when I came with all of my very enthusiastic ideas of what we should not do. He said, "You're now going to help the victims in the depths of hell. You have to make a deal with the devil on the way."

It is difficult, but I think it is needed.

QUESTION: You and I have talked about a number of things over the years, but particularly with regard to natural disasters. I think one of the great stories that was written by you and by UNICEF was the work that you did to organize the NGOs in the various areas of the Indian Ocean that were struck by the tsunami.

That comes to the question I want to ask: After you have gotten all the shelter boxes and the water purification and stuff and pharmaceuticals, which we [Rotary International] do—not as a relief organization, because we are not really in the same league with the other relief organizations—where are rehabilitation organizations? You have mentioned over the years the very great difference between immediate relief and building back and rehabilitation.

For instance, for our clubs in Indonesia, their first priority was to rebuild the fishermen's boats so they could go out and earn a livelihood again and feed their families.

So I would like to stress the important role of NGOs in rehabilitation, as distinct from relief.

Absolutely. In ending, I would like to say that the United Nations now is moving more and more from being an operative organization to becoming a coordinator, a facilitator, an advocate, a negotiator. Those who actually do the work in the field are the nongovernmental organizations, international, local, regional. Why? Because they are more flexible. They are more cost-effective. They are also bound less by these too stringent, in my view, security rules on the United Nations.

The last one is a controversial statement, but I believe we have now gone overboard in risk aversion, in many places.

The good thing about the NGOs is that they have grown from 50 doing international work to 500 doing international work, and there will soon be 1,000. That's my prediction. There are too many, if they descend on the same poor tsunami beaches.

That's why we also initiated the humanitarian reform organizing in various clusters, as we called it. It was Darfur which was really the start of that. It was a wakeup call for me that we managed to break down the walls around Darfur. I thought it was enough for me to say, "The wall is down. Go in." And nothing happened. But these NGO delegations and the UN delegations kept coming to me to try to convince me that there was a big problem in Darfur, and the world has to do something.

I remember one, vividly. I said, "Please leave my office and get 100 sanitation engineers, because I have 1,000 reports of how bad it is. Somebody must go there."

That's why we organized, under predictable leadership, predictable response capacity, 10 different areas, including—and here's an answer to your question—rehabilitation, led by the UNDP [UN Development Programme], which has been less operational than the humanitarians. Humanitarians are a little bit like the Marine Corps. We can go very quickly to places and descend and do good stuff, real-time. The political people are often slow and unpredictable and have very few resources—also the development people.

When peace broke out in South Sudan, I thought the World Bank and the development agencies would descend. They sent one person, I remember, one consultant. So we put in 50 people from my Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which was wrong, because we were supposed to deal with the war, not peace.

Again, they have the operation that we were working on, and the 10th cluster, which is rehabilitation and rebuilding and reconstruction.

Thank you very much.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much for touching us all.

Thank you all for coming.

You may also like

FEB 27, 2024 Video

A Carnegie Council Conversation with the UK Home Secretary

In this speech, the UK Home Secretary outlined the range of opportunities and challenges faced by countries as a consequence of migration.

FEB 23, 2024 Article

What Do We Mean When We Talk About "AI Democratization"?

With numerous parties calling for "AI democratization," Elizabeth Seger, director of the CASM digital policy research hub at Demos, discusses four meanings of the term.

FEB 22, 2024 Podcast

Ukraine at the Crossroads, with Maria Popova & Oxana Shevel

Ahead of the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Maria Popova and Oxana Shevel join "The Doorstep" to discuss shifting war narratives.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation