Jan Eliasson: Let's make lofty principles work in practice to tackle refugee crisis

Jan Eliasson, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations. Photo by: Karl-Heinz Hug

This year’s International Migrants Day comes at a crucial time for the future of millions of Syrian refugees, who continue to leave the country in droves to escape protracted conflict and instability at home. Most continue to languish in border camps, while countries in Europe and elsewhere struggle to reach a consensus on how many refugees they are willing to take in, and when.

One top United Nations official experienced in dealing with the issues on the ground in Syria is U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who sat down with Devex at the recent Annual Democracy Forum in Bern, Switzerland, to discuss the current refugee crisis, how to make democracy accountable, and what it will take to successfully implement the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

On the issue of refugees, he explained, the U.N. must be fully accountable for the lofty principles the organization has created. This means going beyond the usual rhetoric and turning those principles into practical actions to “deliver the results that people want to see in a better world.”

Below are more insights from our conversation with Eliasson.

In the wake of attacks in Paris, Lebanon, Mali and Tunisia and the continued threat posed by the Islamic State group in Belgium and elsewhere, there's a growing interest in understanding and counteracting the root causes of extremism. What is your take on the role of accountability and democracy efforts in countering violent extremism?

One should make much more of a comprehensive analysis of what is it that drives this phenomenon. I'm the first one to say that you have to react very directly and harshly against the perpetrators of this violence, both in the different places around the world where terrorism has been seen tragically in the past few weeks and months, but also when it comes to these groups taking territory in Syria and Iraq.

“If we cannot show that democratic governance is the most effective governance to improve conditions around the world, then we will have a crisis.”

— Jan Eliasson, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations

But there's also a need to ask ourselves: what are the root causes of these problems? Personally I am deeply involved in the issues related to ending the war in Syria, which has ramifications both for the refugee and migration flows from Syria ... We also need to ask ourselves basic questions like what is it that drives young people to join [the Islamic State group] and how do we provide meaningful lives to the citizens of all categories without discrimination? What do we do about fighting the frustration that comes from having no job?

This goes back to the issues of effective governance and the right of people to expect that a state — a nation and its governing bodies — can provide peace, development and human rights.

With your experience in Syria, what are the challenges to strengthening accountability and accountability chains when populations are marginalized or difficult to account for  and how can such challenges be overcome in practice?

The basic sources of international law should guide us in the case of migration and refugees … Our job as an organization is to be responsible for standing up to the norms that we have created. Then, of course, you have to translate it one stage further — how do you then make sure that these lofty principles are working in practice? And that is where we have the whole area of accountability: that it cannot just be a rhetorical attachment; it has to be practical attachment. In the end, we are accountable to the peoples; the peoples of the world created this organization, and it is to them we are accountable.

Access to justice, creating peaceful societies, transparent and strong institutions, and so forth ... are [all] means to achieve what is ultimately our responsibility: to deliver the results that people want to see in a better world.

Speaking of results in the context of accountability, how do you see the U.N.'s role evolving in the future — and what metrics specifically do you hope to see in March — regarding the measurement of SDG 16, in particular on the growth of democratic societies?

This undertaking requires a lot of follow-up work, and I think the most operational of the SDGs that plays a role in this regard is Goal 16, which talks about the importance of peaceful societies and access to justice and strong, inclusive and transparent institutions. We have to make sure that this goal permeates the whole work of the U.N. … and, if I may say so, we should try to work much more horizontally and less vertically.

In moving from the theory to the practice, where do you see more need for innovation and creative thinking, particularly around accountability?

One aspect that is worrying me, and where I really hope measures can be taken, is on the [issue of] reduced space for civil society and even for the media. Even in countries that call themselves democracies, you now [see] restrictions that are very worrying to me, indeed in some cases alarming.

We must understand that democracy is an instrument to bring about a positive change for people, and if people don't feel that there is the possibility of positive change through the institutions that are being created, that turns into frustration. And in the worst cases, that frustration turns against the institutional society. So I think the most important thing for today's leaders … is to understand that we have to deliver concrete results on the ground. If people don't see peace and development and human rights coming out of the democratic processes, we will see a crisis for democracies. And that must not happen.

Devex associate editor Richard Jones interviews Jan Eliasson on the sidelines of the Annual Democracy Forum in Bern, Switzerland. Photo by: Karl-Heinz Hug

In today's world, where there are so many negative forces working to create fear and polarization, we have to be able to stand up against this provocation and perform even better, so that we produce results in the end.

How can the global development community come together to put democratic promotion, accountability chains and the like into the heart of their work? What would be your call to action here for the “nuts and bolts” work they are doing?

Everybody has a responsibility to contribute to this development … Nobody can do everything, but everybody can — and must — do something. We will never achieve these goals unless we have a mobilization on all fronts … When we, as democratic societies, take on this responsibility, we must understand that it is the very credibility of the democratic system that is at stake: If we cannot show that democratic governance is the most effective governance to improve conditions around the world then we will have a crisis — one that could even affect the credibility of the nation state institutions.

Democracy Matters is a global conversation hosted by Devex, in partnership with International IDEA, to discuss accountability as a central element of deepening democracy. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #DemocracyMatters.

About the author

  • Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.