Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 May 2003
Issue No. 639
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Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1933-2003)

By Amina Elbendary

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, Sadry to his close friends, died in Boston on 12 May at the age of 70. He was the son of the late Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan III, imam of the Ismaili Shi'ites and the French Andrée Joséphine Carron. His nephew, Karim Aga Khan IV, is the current Ismaili imam. The Aga Khans are the spiritual descendants of the mediaeval Fatimid dynasty.

Prince Sadruddin was a citizen of the world in every sense. Born in Paris and having spent most of his life in Switzerland, Prince Sadruddin had French, Iranian and Swiss nationalities. He was fluent in French, English, German, Italian and spoke some Farsi and Arabic. As one of the heirs of the Aga Khan dynasty, Prince Sadruddin had a handsome fortune. This did not prevent him, however, from working for the disadvantaged throughout the world, which at one point earned him the nickname "friend of the friendless".

Educated at Harvard University, where he earned his degree in political science in 1954 and did post-graduate work at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, Sadruddin Aga Khan went on to play an important role in international politics. He served two terms as UN high commissioner for refugees, from 1965 to 1977. Appointed to the position at the age of 33, he was the youngest and longest-serving high commissioner.

During his tenure Prince Sadruddin widened the UNHCR mandate well beyond its original focus on Europe, extending its reach to refugees from, for example, Vietnam, Angola and Algeria. In 1971, he spearheaded UN efforts to cope with 10 million refugees from the breakup of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh. Later, in the mid-1970s, he helped find homes for tens of thousands of Vietnamese who fled their communist homeland, and for Asians kicked out of Uganda by former dictator Idi Amin. He coordinated the international response to crises in Sudan, Chile and Cyprus as well as the 1972 exodus of hundreds of thousands of Hutus from Burundi to Tanzania. "He left an indelible print on UNHCR history, leading the agency through some of the most challenging moments," announced Ruud Lubbers, the current high commissioner, in a statement. His name was "synonymous with UNHCR", Lubbers added.

After resigning as refugee chief in 1977, Prince Sadruddin held a series of senior UN roles, including coordinator for the UN humanitarian and economic aid programmes to Afghanistan during 1988-1990 and special UN representative for humanitarian assistance for Iraq and Kuwait after the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991.

Prince Sadruddin was twice an unsuccessful candidate for the position of UN secretary- general. Although he won the vote against Javier Perez de Cuellar in 1981, the former Soviet Union vetoed his appointment on the grounds that he was too pro-Western. He lost again in 1991 to Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Among Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan's many interests was Islamic art. He possessed an impressive collection of drawings, paintings, manuscripts and carpets from Turkey, Iran and India. Some date as far back as the 14th century. This collection will form the core of the academic and cultural centre and museum being constructed by the Aga Khan Development Network in Toronto.

Prince Sadruddin had a special relationship with Egypt and befriended many Egyptian politicians and intellectuals. In his capacity as special adviser to the director-general of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris for the Organisation of the Campaign for the Preservation of Nubian Monuments, and subsequently as executive secretary of the UNESCO International Action Committee for the Preservation of Nubia, he organised the mission to rescue the Ancient Egyptian temples of Abu Simbel, Philae and Kalabsha and the Nubian Christian churches following the construction of the High Dam. He visited Cairo frequently in 1950s and 1960s. In 1973 he bought the Bayt Al-Fann in Darb Al-Labban. This historic house cum artistic centre was renovated by the late architect Hassan Fathy.

Sadruddin's father, Sultan Mohamed Shah, who died in 1957, is buried in a mausoleum in Aswan. In his will, Sultan Mohamed Shah passed over both Sadruddin and his half- brother the late Prince Aly and named his grandson, the latter's son, Karim to be his successor.

Prince Sadruddin's mansion at the Château de Bellerive on Lake Geneva was also the site of his Bellerive Foundation, set up in 1977 as an environmental protection body. In 1989 he set up Alp Action, devoted to protecting the Alpine environment. As a long-standing trustee and former vice-president of the World Wide Fund for Nature International (WWF), Prince Sadruddin led Bellerive's support for threatened species. Bellerive was amongst the first organisations to warn of the potential human health hazards of modern intensive farming methods. Prince Sadruddin was also the founding publisher of the Paris Review and wrote several publications on disarmament and environmental issues.

Among the many honours he has received, Prince Sadruddin was Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur (France), a Knight of the British Empire and a recipient of the Egyptian Order of the Star of the Nile.

Prince Sadruddin's first marriage to model Nina Dyer ended in divorce in 1962. He is survived by his current wife, whom he married in 1972, Catherine Aleya Sursock, a Greek born in Alexandria, as well as his nephews His Highness Karim Aga Khan IV, Prince Amyn Aga Khan, his niece Princess Yasmin Aga Khan Embiricos, and his stepsons, Alexandre, Marc and Nicolas Sursock. He was buried in Switzerland last Friday.

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