In conversation with Stephen Lewis, the United Nations’ sharpest critic and greatest champion

True to form, Canada’s former ambassador to the UN speaks frankly about making the organization fairer and more efficient, its greatest successes and its most worrying failures.

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28 November, 2015
Stephen Lewis speaks at the 16th International AIDS conference in Toronto, Aug. 18, 2006. REUTERS/J.P. Moczulski

Stephen Lewis — one of Canada’s most passionate and outspoken human rights advocates — has worked on the international stage for decades, including turns as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Canada’s UN Ambassador. He is also the author of Race Against Time, and the co-founder and board chair of the Stephen Lewis Foundation.

As the United Nations turned 70 earlier this year, Mr. Lewis spoke with OpenCanada on the strength of its agencies, the lack of leadership, and how he learned the value of taking a stand.

Looking back on your years with the UN, though it is a large institution, it is also made up of good people doing some great things. Can you recall colleagues or particular work that stays with you?

In the UN context, my work with UNICEF was the most gratifying in a productive sense, in the sense of making real progress.  In this case for children, and all over the world, UNICEF representatives at country level — they varied in quality of course —but those who were good were very, very good and they made a profound difference, whether it was immunization or fighting for kids on the street.

I’ve always thought that the tendency for the world was to judge the UN in the context of the Security Council, the General Assembly and this endless fratricidal preoccupation with the Syrias and the Libyas and the Congos of the world. Understandable. I’m not depreciating it. But it gives a very distorted picture of the UN whose greatest strengths lie in the agencies, and in the work of the UNICEFs and the UNDPs and the World Health Organization and certainly the World Food Programme and all of those agencies that improve the human condition on the ground.

And that’s why whenever I speak about the UN, I try to remind people that it has these two components — the one that we constantly read about, which feels as though it is failing, and the one that steps in where others fear to tread and does magnificent humanitarian work.

Should the UN’s role going forward lean more toward those strengths?

I think the other part is equally critical, perhaps more critical, because look at what’s happened in Syria. The inability to resolve the conflict has resulted in these millions upon millions of refugees whose lives are utterly destroyed. So clearly the ability to resolve issues at the Security Council level or the General Assembly level — that’s a crucial component at the UN which isn’t being well handled. And there must be a strong resource there.

That leads to the two most important reforms. The one reform movement to change the composition of the Security Council is absolutely vital. You cannot have a world in 2015 which is based on the world in ’45, it is just nuts. And the right of ‘Western Europe and Others’ group, as it’s called, to have three people out of the five on the security council and the terrible underrepresentation of Latin America, Africa, and Asia — because China is not all of Asia — the representation of such crucial and huge parts of the world amongst the permanent members of the security council is appalling. It makes the Security Council ultimately unworkable. And the rotating process of the other 10 never compensates for the veto power of the permanent five. 

You cannot have a world in 2015 which is based on the world in ’45, it is just nuts.

So if one is looking to reform the UN, the reform of the Security Council is absolutely indispensible and the UN will never fulfill its potential so long as you have five countries, born out of the shadow of the Second World War, operating as though we were 70 years ago. And it undoubtedly is destructive.

But there is something else which I consider just as important, and which others would be more delicate in the way they express it. There’s got to be a stronger Secretary General. Ban Ki-moon is undoubtedly a decent man, undoubtedly a well-intentioned man, but he’s terribly mediocre as the Secretary General. And you have to get away from the mediocrity. Everybody knows it; absolutely everybody knows that he is not equipped to be Secretary General and that he was chosen because the permanent members felt that they could control him and that he would not confront them. Which for example Kofi Annan did on one or two occasions. They decided then to get a Secretary General who was more compliant.

There is another dimension of Ban Ki-moon which is important to note — the Secretariat has increasingly been run in an authoritarian way by the people around Ban Ki-moon; there’s a lot of fear in the Secretariat. It’s not a good atmosphere and it’s terribly important to have a strong Secretariat and to have a strong Secretary General who leads in a way that rallies people rather than frightening them. I am very concerned about that.

I am one of the people who believes that the next Secretary General must be a woman. We have simply got to get away from a boys’ club. It’s just crazy, in a period where everybody is talking gender equality to have an endless array of male Secretaries General.

I don’t want to be invidious but some of the women candidates that are being talked about are themselves not terribly strong and there are magnificent women everywhere in the world who have international experience who should be given very real consideration, and I’m worried that the permanent five will be governed by regional considerations. They’ll insist that the woman has to come from Eastern Europe, even if there are other tremendously strong women candidates in other parts of the world.

That goes back to the way in which the Secretary General is elected.

That’s right. The Secretary General cannot be a conspiratorial choice, behind the doors of the permanent five. The Secretary General, I hope she would be chosen by a debate in the General Assembly. There is some suggestion that on this occasion candidates will be nominated and they can be asked questions and it’s a part of the way, but no country has the right to exercise a veto — it’s just nonsense. You don’t exercise a veto over the first citizen of the world. You express your opinions and if they are strong and effective you’ll persuade others. But if a Secretary General has to be chosen by a majority vote, so be it. It’s just terribly important to get the strongest possible candidate.

That’s what is lacking here: Over the last few years, there has been a decline in the presence and persuasive force of the Secretariat, right up to the Secretary General. You need a stronger Secretary General to help the Security Council to function and to help the serious decisions to be made, and one of the reasons they are not being made well or there is so much strife is because there is simply a lack of leadership. 

bank ki moon
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon speaks to the media at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, October 31, 2015. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

What are the barriers to these reforms? Do you think it might be possible to see these changes at some point in the near future? 

Yes, I think it’s possible. I think it may take more time than 2016 [when the next Secretary General will be selected]. I think Kofi Annan and [former Prime Minister of Norway] Gro [Harlem] Brundtland — ‘The Elders,’ generally — leading this fight is excellent because they have such credibility. And I think they have managed to persuade individual countries, both developing and developed, to be more public in their criticisms in the way the Secretary General is chosen and the way the Security Council is composed so I think there is a chance that cumulatively with more and more pressure that the things will be changed.

With the Secretary General there is real agitation in the world at the moment… It’s not expressed because it’s not seen to be sufficiently respectful. From my point of view, I’m now in it with an NGO dealing directly with sexual violence committed by United Nations peacekeepers in peacekeeping operations. And it is absolutely evident that the lack of leadership in the Secretary General has allowed a situation to fester and to be unresolved which is indefensible.

Beyond the peacekeeping example, you have said in the past that the UN has failed women. Are there other areas in which you think it has failed? 

Let me pick up there. Everyone embraces the principles of gender equality. But in the most senior echelons of the Secretariat we barely reach 30 percent where we assured it would be 50 percent by now. I’m not talking about P1s and P2s and P3s, I’m talking about P5s and D1s, and D2s, and ASGs, and at that senior most level, you’re still between 28 and 30 percent. It’s outrageous that that’s the case. And you’ll remember that when the Secretary General on Oct. 31 last year appointed the major panel on peacekeeping operations, chaired by [former President of East-Timor, José] Ramos-Horta, he appointed 11 men and three women. In 2014. And was publicly forced to apologize and to double the number of women. But it’s just crazy that we have to fight those ridiculously obvious battles at this stage of the game, in the 70th year of the UN’s history.

And then you take the case of UN Women. You know, we fight like hell, my co-director of AIDS-Free World was the person who first proposed that there be a new international agency for women, Paula [Donovan] did it back in 2005, and everybody laughed at us and said it wasn’t possible. We kept hammering away and lo and behold it emerges. 

On the women’s front, the situation remains frankly lamentable.

And look what happens — you have an outfit like UNDP which has a budget of eight to 10 billion dollars, some of it is a pass through but most of it is real, each year, and UNICEF which is four, five, six billion dollars a year and UN Women which now has 300 to 350 million dollars. So they create a UN agency and then they starve it. And where is the voice of the Secretary General? Why hasn’t there been a press conference saying what the hell is wrong with you countries? We’re fighting for gender equality, we’re fighting for the rights of women, we have all these issues —from female genital mutilation to international sexual trafficking to property rights and inheritance rights and political representation and everything you could wish to name — and we finally have an agency that can help on the ground and you’re starving it to death. What is that all about? Where is the indignation and determination to change things?

So on the women’s front the situation remains frankly lamentable, even though they pretend rhetorically that they have improved it. They are great on rhetoric.

Other issues, well, I spent a number of years working on AIDS. The situation has improved with the current executive director of UN AIDS, who has, I think, served more admirably than his predecessor. But you know we went through a period — it’s hard for me not to remember these things because they are so heartbreaking — where the president of South Africa, which has the highest number of infections in the world, it’s over 6 million now and it’s been growing exponentially since the year 2000, the [former] president of South Africa was a denialist. He wouldn’t allow anti-retroviral treatment to be used to keep people allow, he accepted submissions of his lunatic Minister of Health that beetroot and garlic would suffice.

And tens of thousands of people died unnecessarily on Thabo Mbeki’s watch and not a single senior UN person tackled it publicly once in all the years. They knew that Thabo Mbeki was killing his own people, none of them ever said anything.

The only person who said something, and you can take me out of the equation, was Jim Kim, the President of the World Bank, when he was head of HIV at the WHO. He had the courage to criticize the government of South Africa and I was declared persona non grata by doing my job in South Africa. But the people with power, who were fulltime heads of agencies, strong as can be, they said nothing. They talked to him behind the scenes but they never went after him in a way that would have changed the culture of treatment and as result, tens of thousands of people died. I can’t forgive him for that.

And that’s one of the problems with the UN, when everybody thinks of it as a diplomatic club. When you’re doing everything over drinks at a reception behind the scenes, you just don’t get anywhere, it’s just self-diluting.

I think things have improved around HIV and treatment as prevention and the work that is being done but there are still huge areas again primarily around women and girls, where we are moving so slowly that we’re losing a lot of people unnecessarily.

There is still not enough urgency about a virus that people are forgetting about but there are still 20 million people who are infected and who need treatment. We’ve got 15 million in treatment and we’ve got 20 million who still need treatment and the world is losing interest and the money is declining and on the ground at community level there is panic over the lack of funding. That’s the other pattern which the UN should take on — that the big actors in so many areas, the EU, the nation states, the G7, etc., are drawing back from their responsibilities to humankind and at the grassroots. I see it with HIV but it is true with malaria, it’s true with tuberculosis, it’s true with maternal and child care. There is just an awful lot of money that seems to go to the big actors from the big actors but the grassroots are neglected. 

hiv SA
A patient looks on after taking medication at Nkosi’s Haven in South Africa, which provides residential care for destitute HIV-positive mothers and their children. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

How can the grassroots and the big actors compliment each other? I think of groups of indigenous youth who might feel they aren’t being heard at a state or national level who are able to present at the UN and have a voice there. That might be seen as a kind of success, and yet as you say, the UN might still be failing these groups because it is not advocating for them afterwards.

You hit the nail on the head. The engagement of civil society is absolutely crucial and even though at the most senior levels of nation states and the UN there is this pretense that civil society is really involved and engaged, they are never really put in the position where they can make the critical decisions. Sometimes they allowed an analytic contribution to those decisions but they are not decision makers and there is a curious behind-the-scenes contempt for civil society, it’s encouraged and stroked and mollified in public, so you can pretend that you are concerned about grassroots, but behind the scenes there’s no such urgency. We still haven’t come to a point that the people that run the world have respect for the people whose world is being run.

I worry about that and the place I worry about it most — where the need for UN leadership at this moment and for the next few years is most crucial — is climate change.

We are going to have a conference in Paris and it is going to pretend to be successful — it may not even pretend — but it won’t be successful, it can’t be successful, because the decision has already been made that everything will be voluntary. So any of the commitments that are made are absolutely voluntary, there is no enforcement… They are all going to come up with targets, some countries will honour their targets, a lot of countries won’t and there is nothing to be done about it.

That seems to be something that the United Nations should take on. They have got people dealing with the issue at senior levels who have a voice but its always saying to the world, ‘Oh, we’re doing so well, we’re making such progress, the end is in sight, we’re sure to pull it off.’ It’s this kind of cheerleading status that the UN has taken on rather than identifying the needs and gaps and deficits. Instead we have a jamboree of excitement around our achievements, small or large, but that’s not the way to run the world. You want to run the world, you need to point out what the world needs.

I am a multilateralist; I believe in the UN, I haven’t the faintest idea what we would do without it, but I see that it’s too easy to say the nation-states make the decisions. Sure, they make the decisions but with good leadership at the centre you can guide those decisions. And that’s what is lacking. 

I think the UN can be the centre of applause again.

…This is part of why, when I talk about the UN, I emphasize as strongly as I can the agencies. Because the work that UNICEF does in the field, the work that the United Nations Population Fund on sexual and reproductive health does in the field, the World Food Programme does in sustaining populations, the work that the United Nations High Commission on Refugees — these are extraordinary agencies. Sometimes they are not well led. Sometimes the appointment is lousy, but by and large, at country level they make a real difference.

Is it fair to say the cynicism you may have isn’t toward global governance per se, you just think we can do it better?

Absolutely. There can be a qualitative improvement in the United Nations if we revamp the Security Council, if we choose a much more effective Secretary General, if we raise funds around gender which needs to be done at the UN to make this a fairer world, and we recognize the strength of the agencies, I think the UN can be the centre of applause again.

What is Canada’s role in the UN going forward?

I really think that Canada has a tremendous role to play if we revert to our presence as a decent and principled middle power that is constantly making good suggestions and demonstrating that by performance. One of the easiest and speediest ways to do that is to move away from our military preoccupations now, whether it is Afghanistan, Iraq, ISIS or whatever, and come back to the peacekeeping role that we had. Peacekeeping is desperately needed and if Canada were to revert to that role again it would be applauded and celebrated internationally like nothing else.

I think that Canada still has a formidable role to play, to return to peacekeeping for us would be exemplary; they would give a standing ovation in the General Assembly. And the only time that has happened was when [former Prime Minister] Brian Mulroney threatened to attach an economic boycott to South Africa if they didn’t give up apartheid, and the whole General Assembly rose to its feet and applauded him.

You have spoken to this before — but what of the consequences of speaking out, of the sense that we don’t want to talk about failure and the fear of being seen as political?

I was allowed to speak out pretty strongly and freely when I was appointed to the UN by Brian Mulroney because, for whatever reason, he felt as I felt, that it was possible for Canada to speak strongly on positions and take very public positions without doing any damage to the country. Rather than sort of sneaking around behind the scenes and hoping to influence, you simply say what you believe.

And I learned that to be true when I was the envoy on HIV in Africa. On three occasions, [former Secretary General] Kofi Annan was asked to fire me — twice by the United States and once by South Africa — and on each occasion, he called me into his office, and he said, ‘Stephen, are you confident that what you said is accurate?’ And I would say to Kofi Annan, ‘Mr. Secretary General, I am absolutely confident in what I have said; my facts are accurate. And I felt it needed to be said.’ And he said, to me, ‘Then don’t worry Stephen. I’ll cover your back and handle it.’

And he did. On every occasion.

And there is a great deal of self-censorship in the UN, that you have to be soft-spoken and you cannot take positions, and you have to be constantly looking over your shoulder to see what others will say. I’ve never believed that in my life. I was very lucky, I had a Prime Minister who was sympathetic to the view, and I had a Secretary General who was sympathetic to the view.

They both taught me — they both made me feel secure — that it was possible not to traipse around the Maypole but to take a position. And it was important to do so.



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