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Canadian makes waves at the UN. Stephen Lewis's favorite causes: Africa, women's rights, UN itself

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 1986

United Nations, N.Y.

``We were closer to an arms control agreement at Reykjavik than we have ever been to equality for women [at the UN],'' said Stephen Lewis, the passion in his voice rising. ``And when you think about it, Mr. Chairman, the latter should be more easily achievable than the former, but it simply isn't so in this bewildering environment.''

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As the Canadian ambassador spoke, the din in the UN conference room tapered off. People were actually paying attention, a courtesy often not accorded to speakers in UN committees. After Ambassador Lewis had said his piece, a number of women approached to thank him.

``It was touching,'' Lewis said in an interview several days later. ``They were grateful that someone had pointed out how unspeakably chauvinistic the UN is.''

In his two years here, Lewis has transcended his role as Canada's representative to become one of the UN's more outspoken advocates for women's rights, African development, human rights, and the UN itself. His fiery oratory and dedication to causes have delighted many and irritated some. In his speech on women, he spoke of how at times ``eyes roll heavenwards when Canada again makes an intervention around questions of equality for women.''

Last year, a run-in with the conservative Heritage Foundation over a speech he gave accusing the foundation of hurting the UN's image led him to form a group of ambassadors called ``Friends of the UN.''

Lewis's wife, the feminist writer Michele Landsberg, has also raised eyebrows. When she moved to New York last year, she requested that she be addressed by her own name - a practice not normally followed in UN circles. The diplomatic community obliged, nonetheless.

Lewis, a politician, journalist, and labor mediator, never had ambassadorial aspirations. The son of an immigrant socialist leader, he served in the Ontario legislature and, for a time, as provincial leader of the moderately socialist New Democratic Party.

As a student, Lewis distinguished himself not as a scholar but as a debater. (At the University of Toronto, he once opposed a young senator named John F. Kennedy.) He managed to attend four universities - two undergraduate and two law schools - without earning a degree. He quit one law school after three weeks and the other after six. ``Law is capitalism incarnate,'' he declares.

After leaving school, he spent two years in Africa teaching and traveling. In 1960, he was banned from South Africa for working with South African refugees in Ghana. Twenty-six years and two honorary degrees later, Lewis has emerged as a UN superstar.

Bradford Morse, a recently retired senior UN official, calls him ``one of the most able individuals I've ever encountered.'' Indeed, Lewis has had an impact: A Canadian woman, Tamar Oppenheimer, will lead the UN's first conference on drug abuse and trafficking next spring. The UN will also soon have its first women undersecretaries-general, one a Canadian - Th'er`ese Paquet-Sevigny, who will head the Department of Public Information - and the other a Briton, Margaret Joan Anstee, who will head the UN office in Vienna. In addition, it was the work of Stephen Lewis - ``more than any other single individual in the UN system,'' Mr. Morse says - that resulted in the special UN session on Africa in May.