The Socialist International remembers Bernt Carlsson, Secretary General of the Socialist International from 1976 to 1983, on the twentieth anniversary of the explosion aboard Pam American Boeing 747 flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie which claimed the lives of all aboard on 21 December 1988.
Working with SI President Willy Brandt, the former Federal Chancellor of Germany, Carlsson was at the heart of the International at a time when it began a remarkable worldwide expansion from the roots it had initially established in Europe.
Born of a modest family in Stockholm in November 1938, he entered politics early and became one of the leaders of the Swedish Social Democratic Youth, SSU, in his student days. During this time he spent a year at a university in the United States which thoroughly familiarised him with that country’s society and politics. On graduating he went into Swedens’ foreign ministry. But the Prime Minister, Olof Palme, to whom Carlsson was an adviser, was happy to see him working in the organisation of the party where he became international secretary. In that position he strengthened his already extensive knowledge of international affairs.
In 1976 he came to London as Secretary General of the SI where he worked with Brandt, during his first years as President, to extend the ambit of the International especially to Latin America but also to other parts of the world where its presence was not strong. At that time Central America in particular was in political turmoil and Carlsson was not above strong denunciation and action in favour of the forces which were fighting for fairer societies in the isthmus.
Another region which was close to his attention was Southern Africa. He attracted the enmity of the Pretoria authorities who did their best – without success, it must be said – to make his life uncomfortable in London.
The Middle East was also firmly on his agenda and in his time as Secretary General a start was made in transforming the SI into a quiet forum where Palestinians and Israelis could meet and discuss problems in a fraternal manner. This work has continued under his successors and gained the gratitude on both sides.
After he left the SI he returned to his own country where he was given ministerial duties pertaining to Sweden’s very important relations with its Nordic neighbours.
In July 1987 he was appointed United Nations Commissioner for Namibia, the former German colony in South-West Africa which had been captured by South African troops during the First World War and thereafter administered by the white minority regime in Pretoria. After the Second World War the South Africans stayed in the territory in defiance of the United Nations: the UN set out a blueprint for Namibian independence in its Security Council Resolution 435 of 1978.
As a result of his work at the SI the issues involved in his new job were very familiar to him. The UN Council on Namibia had not been effective in ending the illegal situation and the territory became a South African military base. It was used during the war in Angola to try and extend the frontiers of Pretoria’s influence of the newly-independent former Portuguese colony with the assistance of powerful Western interests. For its part the new Angolan government was giving shelter, help and assistance to the men and women of the South-West Africa People’s Organisation who had courageously taken up arms against white minority rule imposed in their country from South Africa. As the South Africans attempted to advance from the south, Angola appealed for foreign assistance, a call which was answered by the Cuban government which sent large numbers of troops and much war materiel.
Not long after his appointment his new initiatives succeeded in transforming a stagnating situation. The war-weary South African troops eventually retired and, after intense discussions in which Carlsson played a part, the independence of Namibia was agreed. He was on his way to a ceremony for the signing of the instruments for the emergence of a new nation, when he was killed, alongside many others, in that act of terrorism.
Speaking at the memorial ceremony for Bernt in Stockholm, the then Swedish Foreign Minister, Sten Andersson, said he was: “A man with a natural talent for the difficult art of silent diplomacy. In that art many are unsuccessful. But not Bernt. For Bernt was also a man “with a soul as tough as steel” as his friend Michael Harrington so nicely put it. We, his friends and colleagues, know that he was knowledgeable, with analytical acumen, single-minded and, most important of all, untiring in his fight for those most exposed, those most persecuted. At all times and in every post Bernt was always prepared in concrete action to make common cause with the weak and appressed. In our country and the world”.
At this death a friend recalled: “His tortoise demeanour surprised some of the hares around him, as he emerged at the finish line unruffled and with a hint of a smile”.
He continues to be sorely missed by all in the International.