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A Man For All Nations - Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan

Sunday, 1978, January 1
A Man For All Nations
Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan

On a clear day, with binoculars, you can look across lake Geneva from Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan's office to the towers of his seventh century Chateau Bellerive, at least you could until yesterday, when he resigned after 12 years as UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Outside are well-kept lawns, winding paths, splendid great evergreens. It all seems a million miles away from the squalor and misery one associates with the very word refugee.

But then Geneva, with its watch making and jewellery, its banking, is not immediately associated with humanitarianism either. One is apt to forget that for centuries it was a place of refuge for English and French Protestants. Voltaire went there to avoid prosecution in France. It was a Geneva banker, Henri Dunant, who founded the world's most successful humanitarian venture, the Red Cross. The High Commission for Refugees maintains the standard.

Prince Sadruddin's background was an unlikely one for the job. For half a century his family, possessed of literally fabulous wealth, has been meat and drink to gossip writers - his father, the late Aga Khan III, with his marriages, racehorses and ceremonial weighings against diamonds; Sadruddin's half brother Aly Khan with his marriages (one to Rita Hayworth), racehorses and fast cars.

Sadruddin, too as a young man, provided material, in-voluntarily, for what he now describes as the family myth.' His name was linked with a film star (Anouk), with the ballet dancer daughter of a Russian emigre aristocrat, and with a Guinness heiress. In 1957 he married a model, Nina Dyer. The marriage split up in 1962; she committed suicide five years later.

His father, Sadruddin says, was closely involved all his life in world politics- he pre-sided over the League of Nations in 1937- not always judiciously, Last November, in an article marking the centenary of Aga Khan III's birth, Sadruddin wrote frankly that he had mistakenly chosen to support the Munich Agreement,' although his support for Great Britain in World War Two was total important.

Even in the 1950s, however, it was noticed that Sadruddin was different, I dislike horse racing,' he was quoted as saying at 19. He went to Harvard, where he attended some of Dr. Kissinger's lectures. He learned to hate and despise racial discrimination and joined the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

After graduating he was recruited by UNESCO to help raise funds for the preservation of the great Nubian monuments, such as Abu Simble, which were threatened by the building of the Aswan Dam. Then, in 1959, came World Refugee Year, the brainchild of four young Englishmen, Christopher Chataway, Colin Jones, Trevor Philpott and Timothy Raison.

WRY was aimed mainly at resettling the thousands of people still in camps all over Europe 14 years after the war. But Dr. Auguste Lindt, the Swiss diplomat who was High Commissioner for Refugees, saw a chance to broaden its scope. He knew of Sadruddin's international contacts-members of the Muslim Ismaili sect, of which the Aga Khan is leader, over 20 million of them, are found in India, Pakistan and East Africa; in Central Asia, Syria and Iran-and took the young man on as his special envoy at large. In 1962, barely 29, he became Deputy High Commissioner.

Refugee relief work is highly charged politically. Refugees are outside their country because of a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion.' Usually they have fled from violence. The countries they flee from are understandably wary of international do-gooders setting themselves up as representatives of the refugees.

Again, refugees in the eyes of the countries they leave are potential rebels, worse, allies of the countries they flee to.Inevitably they are a source of international tension. The Sudan, which had been racked by a vicious civil war ever since the middle 1950s, was typical. Tens of thousands of southern Sudanese had crossed into neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia and Uganda; half a million more were hiding in the bush.


Sadruddin made his mark from the start, both in tackling problems like the Sudan's -and in the way he established himself in the High Commission, Sir Leslie Kirkley, former head of the International Council Of Voluntary Agencies, recalls watching him win the confidence of the Director of Operations, Thomas Jamison, a tough, blint little scot, much older than Sadruddin and with a very different background. There were outspoken arguments but no hostility, and a close working relationship developed between them.

Largely thanks to the good offices of UNHCR, and to Sadruddin's patience, tact and sheer diplomatic skill, first as deputy, then as head-- he got the job in 1965, at 32 -- nearly three quarters of a million Sudanese refugees and displaced persons were repatriated or resetteled. An even bigger test came with the violent birth of Bangladesh.

Its declaration of independence in March 1971, after floods and a cyclone in which three million people died, provked savage Pakistani reprisals. The flow of Bengali refugees into India became a flood. Relief operations began in April. In may, Sadruddin began his shuttling, first between Geneva, New York, London and Paris, then between Pakistan and India. He toured border areas and refugee camps. Political tension was high.

The High Commission was accused both of not acting quickly enough and of actiong too quickly, thus interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign States. Indians spoke of Sadruddin being a double talker', a Pakistan stooge' (his family had close associations with Pakistan). In a memorable speech he declared: I am not pro-Pakistani. Iam not pro-Indian. Iam pro-refugee,

The criticism died down. The relief work went on. By February 1972 more than seven million refugees had returned to Bangladesh-re-patriation had begun even before the short (for Pakistan disastrous) war that broke out in December.

Always in mind are the Palestinians, as a terrible example of what a refugee problem can lead to. The U N Relief and Works Administration was set up to care for-not resttle- Palestinians who had fled from the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. It was done, Sadruddin says, in order to appease the international community's conscience, and it was a great mistake. The long-drawn- out agony of the Middle East is the price the world is paying. The High commission's aim is always to stop Governments from using refugees as a political football. The methods are: Set up camps well back from frontiers; begin efforts immediately to creat a climate of confedence; repatriate refugees as soon as possible or resettle them in another country.

(Sadruddin and his officials were quick to emphasise the constrasting political conditions and the sheer physical differences between the Middle East and say Africa, where there is no lack of land.)

On his birthday in January, Sadrudin Aga Khan will still be only 45. Slim as a youth, overweight as a young man, he keeps trim nowadays with skiing and sailing. His English is accentless; while we were talking the telephone rang; he spoke in what to my inexpert ear was flawless French. The manner is deeply courteous, very faintly aloof; He is a man with a large private space around him,' an aide says.

People I spoke to about him were embarrasingly unanimous in their praise the British Foreign Office, his staff, old freinds and acquaintances, even-and this really was some thing-- senior officials in other agencies; in fighting within the UN family is notorious. Someone who has worked in refugee relief for years did detct in him just a touch of the seigneurial These are my people, my refugees' understandable perhaps, in someone whose ancestry is tracked directly back to the Prophet himself; it is something he does not greatly bother with.

Islamic art

Why he has resigned? No one, he says, should hold a UN job for life. People become stale, lose sight of the forest, can't deliver their best. It was time to review my life.' How has he kept going so long? Exercise, avoiding cocktail parties (a specila hate, these, espesially official ones) and meditation. In this last he said, he is joined by his wife. Princess Catherine, beautiful, fair haired, a Greek who was born in Alexzandria, formerly married to a Lebanese business man, has closely associated herself with his work. Now they can relax together and he can persue his other interests. Islamic art is a passion. He has also formed a group of scienctists, jurists, churchmen and scholars to examine the implications of the world's increasing dependence on nuclear energy.

However...In 1971 he was reported as being a front runner for UN Secretary General. Does he still want the job? The reply, if somewhat cryptic, indicated that he would not be averese. Once you've been involved in the UN and been able to test your ability, you begin to know what areas you can function in, what you're best at.' An old UN hand compared him to the great Dag Hammarskjold. Sadruddin laughed: Hammarskjold was a cool Nordic, I am an emotional Middele Easterner' (he is a citizen of Iran, where his family has its roots). He said how difficult he had found it not to be rude to governments. Emotional, no doubt; controlled too.

Even more than Hammarskjold, Prince Sadruddin is that rare specimen, the truly internaional man. Born in Paris, a resident of Geneva, he looks a typical product of the Affluent World. Yet when appropriate it's we people of the Third World' an aide remembers him walking in the mud in the plain of Jars, in Laos, talking to the comrades in their quilted coats, the Pather Lao, eating with them on rough wooden tables. A week later, with Giscardd'Estaing in the Elysee, it could be We of the culture francaise.' it may verge on the opportunistic, but it was good for refuges.

There are more of them than ever before this is the century of the uprooted man,' he has said. No one has done more to relieve their suffering than Sadruddin Aga Khan. Senator Edward Kennedy, who knew him at Harvard and was 13 years chairman of a Senate sub-committee on refugees, says: Both of us have sloshed through muddy and diseased refugee camps.

Sadri cares for people and their condition and aspirations, and I know he helped to save the future for literally millions of families round the world. He lives in place an invaluable instrument for peace and relief in the years ahead.

Source: The Observer Review .

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