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Sadruddin Aga Khan was a pro-refugee-2003-05-13

Tuesday, 2003, May 13
Khalid A-H Ansari

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who died on Monday at the age of 70, was the uncle of Karim Aga Khan IV, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Shia Muslims.

Born in Paris in 1933, he was the second son of the late Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, the 48th hereditary Imam and the late Princess Andree Aga Khan. The family traces its bloodline to the Prophet.

Educated in Lausanne and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University, Prince Sadruddin chose a career in politics and rose almost to the top of the United Nations. He devoted much of his life to global environmental causes.

A philanthropist, environmentalist, collector of Islamic art and holder of several senior humanitarian posts at the United Nations, Sadruddin once remarked that he disliked racing — unlike his father, who was famous for his palaces and horses.

His half-brother Aly was known for his horses, fast cars and diamonds and was briefly married to Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth.

He was the youngest and longest-serving UN High Commissioner for Refugees, remaining in office for 32 years.

He earned widespread acclaim for the manner in which he handled major refugee crises in Biafra during the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s, and in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Chile.

Among his more notable achievements was his active role in the return of seven million refugees who crossed into India following Pakistani brutality in the wake of Bangladesh’s declaration of independence in 1971.

Responding to Indian accusations at the time that he was a “stooge” for Pakistan, with whom his family had close associations, Prince Sadruddin replied “I am not pro-Pakistani, I am not pro-Indian, I am pro-refugee.”

His background - an Iranian brought up in Switzerland in the Muslim faith by an Iranian father and a French mother, and educated at Harvard - qualified him eminently as an interpreter between East and West.

But despite his record as selfless and dedicated worker as Charge de Mission to the UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim and director of various UN agencies, governments and charities, Sadruddin was passed over for the post of Secretary General of the UN in 1981 and 1991.

He won the vote in 1981, but his election was vetoed by the Soviet Union, which considered him too Western.

Javier Perez de Cuellar was appointed to the post and Sadruddin co-coordinated efforts under him to bring aid to the people of Afghanistan.

He was also special UN representative for humanitarian assistance for Iraq and Kuwait after the Gulf war in 1991.

The Iraq assignment brought out his considerable diplomatic skills, involving gaining the agreement of Saddam Hussein for a relief programme for tens of thousands of Shia Muslims trapped in deplorable conditions in the marshlands of southern Iraq.

Saddam’s mistrust of the UN was a major hurdle but some tough negotiations with Tariq Aziz, a Christian, resulted in a UN presence in Iraq for the first time, following which Sadruddin called for swift lifting of sanctions.

With the support of King Hussein of Jordan, Sadruddin was successful in securing the release of Ian Richter, who had been jailed for life in 1986 on bribery charges.

Sadruddin became increasingly involved in environmental issues after stepping down from the UN and created a think tank Groupe de Bellerive (at his 17th-century Chateau de Bellerive on the shores of Lake Geneva) through his London-based Aga Khan Foundation to promote conservation of natural resources and protection of all life forms.

Sadruddin accumulated a host of coveted international honours during his lifetime.

His grandmother used to recite to him the great epic poems of Persia’s turbulent history that she knew by heart.

She had left his father a library of Persian books, mystical texts and astrological treatises, because of which Sadruddin became interested in Islamic art.

A priceless collection of paintings, drawings and manuscripts dating from the 17th century is housed at Chateau Bellerive.

Sadruddin was married for five years to model Nina Dyer before their divorce in 1962. His wife Catherine Aleya Sursock, a Greek born in Alexandria, survives him.

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