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

``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.''

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.

Lewis's role in organizing and chairing that special session has perhaps meant the most to him here. Now that the General Assembly has adjourned, Lewis can plunge into his new career-within-a-career as the Secretary-General's special adviser for Africa - in effect, the UN's chief lobbyist for Africa's development effort. His task: to mobilize the international community.

Lewis is considered ideal for the job. Being from Canada, he relates well to both English- and French-speaking Africans. Unlike the US and European nations, his country was not a colonial ruler. As a Westerner, he can relate to other Westerners more easily than an African could. He is a socialist, as are most African nations to one degree or another. And perhaps most important, he has won the confidence of his African colleagues.

Lewis is ``exhilarated'' about his African work. ``What happens to Africa is now an id'ee fixe for everyone here,'' he says. ``Institutionally and emotionally, the right agencies, people, and governments are galvanized.''

Lewis seemed an improbable choice for UN ambassador by Canada's Conservative government. As Lewis explains it, in 1984 Prime Minister Brian Mulroney wanted to show that he would not indulge in the kind of patronage that former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had. Lewis accepted the job on the condition that he be given a fairly free rein. ``It is a tribute to the government that they permit me to say to the press that I disagree with how I voted'' if that is the case, he says.

It was also agreed from the start that Lewis would serve only four years. In 1988, Canada joins the Security Council, and Lewis foresaw ``potential ideological difficulties.''

After the UN, what next? No more politics, he says (though some UN observers speculate that Lewis may be using the UN as a platform from which to boost his political stock in Canada). Rather, he plans to write a book - ``a fairly searching review of the UN. Both analytical, to engage people's minds, and anecdotal, verging on libel.''

In a sense, Lewis's background as a politician has prepared him well for the UN. Unlike many UN observers, he is not troubled by the political rhetoric. ``I take it with a barrel of salt,'' he says. ``The UN has a very particular dynamic of its own, and I'm not traumatized when the place doesn't seem to work....'' Progress may be slow, but progress is there, he says. ``Every new convention on torture or terrorism or human rights is an important incremental step in civilizing the world.''

In the midst of the UN's financial crisis, Lewis has been ``determinedly optimistic.'' What the UN needs, he says, is some ``very concrete achievements to counter accusations that it is a sterile debating society and rhetorically self-indulgent.'' Africa, drugs, and women's rights are areas where he can see the UN making contributions. But the UN also needs a political success - ``I wish to the depths of my being that it could be South Africa'' - to improve its image substantially, he says. And he does not see such a breakthrough on the horizon.

But, he says, faced with the lack of a political breakthrough, ``we can hold on a few years if progress in other areas happens.'' Stephen Lewis is seeing to it personally that there is progress.

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