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The Independant
May 14, 2003

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan

Radical statesman of the United Nations who occupied a unique position between Islam and the West

Sadruddin Aga Khan, diplomat: born Paris 17 January 1933; Head of Mission and Adviser to the High Commissioner for Refugees, United Nations 1959-60, Deputy High Commisioner for Refugees 1962-65, High Commissioner 1965-77, Consultant and Chargé de Mission to the Secretary-General 1978-2003; Unesco Special Consultant to Director-General 1961; Executive Secretary, International Action Committee for Preservation of Nubian Monuments 1961; KBE 2002; married 1972 Catherine Aleya Sursock; died Boston, Massachusetts 12 May 2003.

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan was one of very few radical statespeople whose principal interest in the late 20th century was the troubled state of the planet. It was a small group, clinging to the belief that the failure of governments to come to terms with the harsh realities of the times was relevant to the use – or the non-use – of the United Nations. For years internationalism was unfashionable and unpopular but it was to this cause that Sadruddin, who was born to great wealth and privilege, devoted his energy. In the tragic story of international co-operation, Sadruddin had a hero's role.

He was the son of Mohammed Shah Aga Khan III, who would have marvelled at his son's career. Sadruddin fulfilled his father's dreams; it is not often remembered that the Aga Khan, a fabulously rich playboy with a string of palaces and racehorses, was in 1937 President of the General Assembly of the League of Nations, where for five years he represented India. In spite of diplomatic ambitions, the Aga Khan remained known for his exploits with women; father and son both possessed considerable charm.

Sadruddin was born in 1933 in the American hospital at Neuilly on the outskirts of Paris. He was educated in Lausanne and then Harvard; he was a reserved child who became a studious teenager and he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1958.

That year he was first exposed to practical internationalism when he was appointed Special Consultant to Unesco and he was quickly asked to help set up a major project to preserve the Nubian Monuments in north-east Africa. These early and exciting years with Unesco convinced him of the rightness of the international cause and he sought greater challenge. He was soon recruited by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). His rise was meteoric. Within three years and at the young age of 32 Sadruddin was appointed by member governments to head the agency and it was thanks to him that it became one of the most effective in the system.

He was a popular man and a rarity among agency directors – he was trusted by his international staff. Unlike some others in the international hierarchy, he was not prey to the pressure and blackmail of governments. In the 12 years at UNHCR he became a world expert in disaster management – an expertise which demanded an ability to overcome the many and tremendous weaknesses which are inherent within international organisations, including the politicisation of the agencies, creeping bureaucratisation, insufficient experts and, the most debilitating of all, insecure funding.

He was ambitious. In 1977 he left UNHCR and was appointed Special Consultant to the Secretary-General of the UN – at the time, Kurt Waldheim. Sadruddin was the supreme co-ordinator, able to bring together governments, UN agencies and charities. At the time, no one had any doubts about his own aspirations for Waldheim's job. But the Security Council – dominated by the five permanent members – twice failed to appoint him, once in 1981 and again 10 years later, in spite of a majority of diplomats in favour of his candidature.

In 1981, when Waldheim was trying unsuccessfully for an unprecedented third term, Sadruddin drew more positive votes in the Security Council than anyone – but he was prevented by the Soviet veto. Moscow thought him too Western. As usual a compromise candidate was chosen – the little-known Peruvian diplomat Javier Pérez de Cuéllar.

Sadruddin failed again in 1991. He was dismissed by the press as a "jet-setting aristocrat". Once more he was perceived as too Western and the eventual appointment of the Egyptian diplomat Boutros-Boutros Ghali revealed that nationality was a more important attribute than anything else. Boutros-Boutros Ghali was African, Arab and from the developing world. The Prince was perceived as a Westernised Muslim who lacked well-defined political allegiances. It was said – quite wrongly – that the Prince was suffering an identity crisis.

Sadruddin could properly be described as an Iranian but he did not really have a nationality – having spent years trying to solve the problems of refugees he knew all too well how damaging nationality could be. He put himself above the battle and he managed to create for himself a unique position between Islam and the West. He quite easily spanned different worlds. His father had been the hereditary head of a liberal, moderate and sophisticated branch of Islam, the Ismailis, whose followers spread from East Africa right across the Muslim world. The present Iman of the Ismaili Muslims is Prince Karim, Sadruddin's nephew and contemporary.

There was no one better than Sadruddin to understand the tensions between Islam and the West. Sadruddin believed that a continuing dialogue was imperative and he regretted the Western image of resurgent Islam with gun-toting terrorists and medieval-looking clergymen. He said the resurgence of Islam had much in common with liberation theology in Latin America; the social and economic forces were the same. Indeed, the changes wrought in Islamic societies resulted from the drive towards industrialisation and such changes were common to the whole of the Third World.

He said that the sinister aspect was the injection into the Islamic world of the East-West conflict with lethal consequences; the Iran-Iraq war in which schoolboys were used in chemical gas warfare in trenches had continued so long only because it suited the interests of the superpowers in a sickening arms bonanza. Sadruddin said the reason that so many unelected and unpopular governments brutalised the Third World was because the means to do so were imported from the East or West in the form of weapons, policing equipment, training and funding.

Sadruddin worked tremendously hard at the daily grind of diplomacy and he was given arduous, exacting and sometimes impossible tasks. In 1991, appointed Executive Delegate of the UN by Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, he was to oversee humanitarian relief in Iraq after the war to retake Kuwait. He negotiated with Saddam Hussein to allow relief agencies access to help the Kurds and the Shia Muslims. Sadruddin maintained that there was a degree of pride and sensitivity in Baghdad which had to be respected and later he campaigned to have the Security Council lift the punitive sanctions against Iraq.

In 1977 he created his own think-tank, Groupe de Bellerive, which produced numerous reports on the increasing threats to the environment. When asked some years ago which country had adopted ecologically sound policies, he replied without hesitation, "None". The Groupe de Bellerive's activities were diverse; organising seed shipment for returning Afghan refugees or encouraging the manufacture of cooking stoves that burn wood more economically. The foundation also fought the urbanisation in the Swiss Alps which was causing a gathering environmental disaster due to deforestation – here were implications for the whole continent. His foundation created Alp Action, an effort to try to reverse the degradation of the mountains. Sadruddin's interests ranged from the Brazilian rainforests and nuclear proliferation to the survival of endangered species.

Since his days as a student at Harvard, he had built up a wide-ranging collection of art from the Islamic world dating back to the 14th century. "It seemed to me that it was a good thing for a family like mine to somehow try to get things back. I was trying to understand where I came from." In 1997, he lent items from the collection to the British Museum exhibition "Princes, Poets and Paladins". In 2002, he was appointed KBE for his services to humanitarian causes and the arts.

In his last years, he became more pessimistic, for his overriding concern was the increasing numbers of refugees fleeing starvation and massacre. He had acted over and over again in refugee crises and he used the term "new world order" with irony. He believed that only a new economic order would make any real difference for, along with other internationalists, he believed that the divide between rich and poor nations was morally wrong; the progress for the world's poor could not continually be delayed. At times he wondered if any effort was too late – and he was a sadder and wiser man.

Linda Melvern
13 May 2003 22:21

© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd