Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan

From New World Encyclopedia

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan
BornJanuary 17 1933(1933-01-17)
Paris, France
DiedMay 12 2003 (aged 70)
Boston, U.S.
Spouse(s)Nina Sheila Dyer, former Baroness von Thyssen-Bornemisza (1957 – 1962)
Catherine Aleya Sursock
ParentsAga Khan III and Andrée Carron

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, KBE (January 17, 1933 – May 12, 2003), served as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1966 to 1978, during which he reoriented the agency's focus beyond Europe and prepared it for an explosion of complex refugee issues. He is credited with developing the autonomy, status, and credibility of the UNHCR. He was also a proponent of greater collaboration between non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and United Nations agencies. In 1989, he was appointed Coordinator for United Nations Humanitarian and Economic Assistance Programs Relating to the People of Afghanistan, then in September 1990 he became the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Humanitarian Assistance Relating to the Crisis between Iraq and Kuwait. However, he failed to achieve the Secretary-Generalship of the United Nations, for which he was twice considered. The Prince's interest in ecological issues led him to establish the Bellerive Foundation in the late 1970s, and he was a knowledgeable and respected collector of Islamic art.

Born in Paris, France, he was the son of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan the Imam (spiritual leader) of the Ismailis and Princess Andrée Aga Khan. Although by-passed for the Imamate, he dedicated his life to serving humanity. He married twice, but had no children of his own. Prince Sadruddin died of cancer at the age of 70, and was buried in Switzerland. He believed that elites have a duty to work for the good of others and motivated by a deep commitment to human right, social justice and world peace. He also worked to promote better understanding between the cultures of the East and the West. His career is an outstanding example of a life lived in the service of others.

Life and career

Childhood and education

Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, he was the only child of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III and his second wife, the former Andrée Joséphine Carron. He received his early education in Lausanne, Switzerland, before graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1954 from Harvard College.[1] At Harvard, he roomed with Paul Matisse, grandson of French impressionist painter Henri Matisse, with future Paris Review founder John Train, and with Stephen Joyce, grandson of Irish writer James Joyce and the future United States Senator, Edward Kennedy. After three years of post-graduate research at the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Prince Sadruddin began a lifelong career of international service.[2]

Although he was raised in Europe by his French mother, his father, who was the 48th hereditary Imam of the Nizari Ismaili Muslims, had a strong influence on him. He recalled that his father "insisted that I learnt the Koran and encouraged me to understand the basic traditions and beliefs of Islam but without imposing any particular views. He was an overwhelming personality but open-minded and liberal" who had Presided over the League of Nations 1937-38.[3]

Together with his father he traveled widely in Muslim countries, bringing Prince Sadruddin into contact with his Islamic roots from a young age. He described Iran as the cradle of his family, though he never lived there.[4] When he was a child, his paternal grandmother used to recite to him the great epic poems of Persian history.[3] He held French, Iranian, and Swiss citizenship, and was fluent in French, English, German and Italian, while also speaking some Persian and Arabic.


Prince Sadruddin joined the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1958, and became the Executive Secretary to its International Action Committee for the Preservation of Nubia in 1961. This initiative brought together archaeologists from Eastern Europe and the West at the height of the Cold War. The construction of the Aswan Dam threatened ancient Egyptian treasures including Abu Simbel, the temples of Philae and Kalabsha, and the Christian churches of Nubia.[4][5] He would later describe it as "one of UNESCO's great achievements" because of the challenging historical context in which it took place—in particular the ongoing tensions in the Middle East and the Cold War.[4]

UN High Commissioner for refugees

Prince Sadruddin began as a Special Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1959 with a focus on World Refugee Year (1959–1960). The initiative became known for its Stamp Plan, a philatelic program that raised funds through United Nations member countries, as well as the support of the Universal Postal Union. At the time, the UNHCR's resources were primarily focused on supporting refugees crossing from Eastern Europe.[4]

In January 1966, Prince Sadruddin was appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees after serving for three years as Deputy High Commissioner. At the age of 33 he became the youngest person ever to lead the UNHCR. For the next twelve years he directed the UN refugee agency through one of its most difficult periods, coordinating the international response to the 1971 Bangladesh crisis that uprooted 10 million people, the 1972 exodus of hundreds of thousands of Hutus from Burundi to Tanzania, and the Indochinese boat people tragedy of the mid-1970s. In 1972, Prince Sadruddin played a key role in finding new homes for tens of thousands of South Asians expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin.

Prince Sadruddin's determination not to discriminate between European and Third World refugees helped prepare the UNHCR for a change in the landscape of internationally displaced persons. During the 1950s, between 200,000 and 300,000 refugees of European origin required assistance. By the 1970s the European refugee problems were mostly solved, but had been replaced by millions of displaced persons in the Third World. He had widened the UNHCR mandate well beyond its original focus on Eastern Europe, extending the organization’s reach to refugees from Palestine, Vietnam, Angola and Algeria. As the scale and complexity of refugee issues continued to increase, the UNHCR and the international community at large was better positioned to adapt.[4] By the end of 1977 when he chose to step down from the position, he had become the longest-serving UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He continued to serve in various capacities dealing with humanitarian situations on behalf of the UN.

United Nations diplomatic career

Prince Sadruddin had, since 1978, been variously: Special Consultant and Chargé de Mission to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Commission and Convener and Co-Chairman of the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues and of the Independent Working Group on the UN Financial Emergency. He was later Coordinator for United Nations Humanitarian and Economic Assistance Programs Relating to the People of Afghanistan and Executive Delegate of the Secretary-General for a United Nations Inter-Agency Humanitarian Program, which dealt with problems of Iraq’s border areas.[6][7]

His appointment in September 1990 as Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Humanitarian Assistance Relating to the Crisis between Iraq and Kuwait[8] required diplomatic finesse. Iraq's President Saddam Hussein was deeply suspicious of the UN, and was loathe to do anything that would benefit the country's Shia Muslims. Despite this, Prince Sadruddin was able to successfully negotiate with Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz for the establishment of a UN relief program for tens of thousands of Shia Muslims trapped in worsening conditions in the marshlands of southern Iraq.[1]

Prince Sadruddin was nominated and passed over twice for the post of UN Secretary-General. Although he won the 1981 vote, the Soviet Union considered him too Western and vetoed his election.[2] When he was nominated again in 1991, the United States and Britain expressed their disagreement with his belief in a policy of boosting aid to Iraq.[2] Boutros-Gali, who was appointed in 1991, however, says that the Chair of the U..S Senate Foreign Affairs Committee favored Sadruddin as did George H. W Bush, although that latter had not originally supported his candidacy.[9] Failure to achieve this office was a personal disappointment.[10]

Environmental protection and advocacy

In 1977, Prince Sadruddin, together with Denis de Rougemont and a few other friends, established a Geneva-based think-tank, Groupe de Bellerive (named after Bellerive, the municipality where he lived in Geneva), and a non-profit organization, the Bellerive Foundation. The foundation collaborated with international institutions, British and Scandinavian bilateral aid organizations, and other NGOs such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).[4] It became a leading grassroots action group promoting environmental protection, natural resource conservation and the safeguarding of life in all its forms.

Initially, Bellerive worked with UNICEF and the United Nations Children's Fund in the struggle against deforestation. Prince Sadruddin was motivated in part by what he called "ecological refugees," who were forced to leave regions that could no longer sustain them due to desertification and other environmental changes. The foundation worked with Swiss specialists to develop low-cost, energy-efficient cooking stoves that relied on renewable energy sources such as methane and biogas. It distributed these among needy rural populations, primarily in Africa. Other areas of concern for Bellerive included the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the protection of threatened species.[4]

As a resident of Switzerland, Prince Sadruddin was concerned about the impact of insensitive tourist development and deforestation on the European Alps. At the World Economic Forum in 1990, he launched Alp Action to protect the mountain ecosystem and preserve the Alps' cultural diversity and vitality. The Bellerive Foundation program encouraged eco-tourism, aiming to reduce the impact of outdoor adventure sports on the fragile alpine habitat. During its years of operation, Alp Action successfully launched over 140 projects in seven countries.[11] It found inspiration in the system of national parks of the Canadian Rockies.

A long-standing trustee and former Vice-President of the World Wide Fund for Nature International, Prince Sadruddin led Bellerive’s support for threatened species. Bellerive was also amongst the first organizations to warn of the potential human health hazards of modern intensive farming methods.[12]

In May, 2006, the activities of the Bellerive Foundation were merged into the Geneva-based Aga Khan Foundation (founded in 1967 by Prince Sadruddin's nephew Karim Aga Khan IV) to form the Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan Fund for the Environment. The US$10 million fund is dedicated to finding practical solutions to environmental problems. The fund concentrates its activities in six areas that were important to Prince Sadruddin: Environmental education; natural resource management in fragile zones; nature parks and wildlife reserves; environmentally and culturally appropriate tourism infrastructure; environmental health; and research.

Death and remembrance

Prince Sadruddin died of cancer in Boston, Massachusetts on May 12, 2003,[2][12] coincidentally, the same day as his elder half-brother Prince Aly Khan had died 43 years ago. His body was conveyed to Switzerland where members of the diplomatic corps, government officials and close friends were invited to pay their last respects at the Chateau de Bellerive, and sign books of condolence at various locations around the world. Ruud Lubbers, then UNHCR High Commissioner, expressed the sadness of the UNHCR and the entire humanitarian community, commenting that "he left an indelible print on UNHCR's history — leading the agency through some of the most challenging moments. Sadruddin's name became synonymous with UNHCR."[13]

In accordance with his wishes, Prince Sadruddin's burial took place at a private ceremony attended by members of his family.[12] Traditional Muslim ceremonies were led by Sheikh Ahmed Ahmed Ibrahim, who leads the prayers at the mausoleum of the Prince's father, Aga Khan III, in Aswan, Egypt. Last respects were paid beneath the arches of the Château de Bellerive, before the bier was carried to the local cemetery of Collonge-Bellerive. A tribute from the Canton of Geneva read: "The destiny of this family of high Persian nobility, descended from the Prophet Muhammad, is inextricably linked to that of this small European town and to an ambitious project to improve the human condition."[14]

The United Nations community celebrated Prince Sadruddin's life at a memorial ceremony held in his honor at its headquarters in New York on October 28, 2003. He was remembered for representing the moral and compassionate side of the international community.[15] Then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan commented that "he combined respect for humankind with concern for our environment. He worked on behalf of the poor and dispossessed, while celebrating humanity through culture and art."[15] He concluded his tribute by praising Prince Sadruddin as "a role model to many of us… his example will continue to inspire new world citizens for several generations to come."[15]

He was survived by his wife of 31 years, Princess Catherine; his three stepsons Alexandre, Marc, and Nicholas; as well as his nephews and niece Prince Karim, Prince Amyn, and Princess Yasmin; and his cousin Mme. Francoise Carron. It was Prince Sadruddin's and Princess Catherine's wish that their mortal remains ultimately be laid to rest in Muslim soil in Egypt.

Personal life

Prince Sadruddin's life was deeply influenced by his family roots and cultural heritage. His paternal lineage goes back to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, through the Prophet's daughter Fatima and cousin Ali. Prince Sadruddin's grandmother was the granddaughter of the Qajar Emperor Fath’Ali Shah.[6] He was keenly aware of his family's important Muslim lineage and the legacy of Persian nobility that he carried in his blood. These rich traditions intermingled and manifested themselves in his career and personal pursuits. He also, however, attributed his interest in promoting better inter-cultural and inter-religious understanding to his own heritage that straddled two cultural worlds, that of the Muslim world and Europe.

International service was a family tradition, and throughout his life Prince Sadruddin was surrounded by it. His father held influential roles in British India and internationally and was instrumental in the formation of Pakistan. He served two terms as President of the League of Nations.[2] Prince Sadruddin's older half-brother, Prince Aly Khan, was Pakistan's Ambassador to the United Nations. Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslims and present Aga Khan, was a nephew to Prince Sadruddin, and is the founder and Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network. His brother, Prince Amyn, had previously worked with the United Nations before joining the Aga Khan's secretariat. Meanwhile, Prince Sadruddin's niece Princess Yasmin, has devoted herself to the fight against Alzheimer's disease.[16]

Prince Sadruddin had a taste for culture, including music, art, and literature. He was a familiar figure at music festivals and other cultural events, both in Europe and overseas. His concern for the environment was complimented by his enjoyment of the outdoors; he was a keen skier and an accomplished sailor.[6] While still at Harvard in 1953, Prince Sadruddin became the founding editor of the Paris Review, which was established with the aim of bringing original creative work to the fore. Every year the Review awards the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction (established by his father) for the best short story that it published in the past year.


On August 27, 1957, in Bellerive, Switzerland, Prince Sadruddin married Nina Dyer (1930–1965). An Anglo-Indian fashion model, she was the former wife of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. She converted to Islam, taking the name "Shirin" (lit. "sweetness"). They had no children and divorced in 1962.

His second marriage took place in November 1972, in the British West Indies. He married Catherine Aleya Beriketti Sursock who was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1938. She was formerly the wife of Cyril Sursock. She and Prince Sadruddin had no children, but from this marriage he gained three stepchildren: Alexandre, Marc, and Nicholas Sursock.

Art collection

During his lifetime Prince Sadruddin assembled one of the finest private collections of Islamic art in the world. He became a knowledgeable and respected collector, accumulating a priceless collection of paintings, drawings, manuscripts and miniatures over 50 years. He had also gathered a collection of primitive and African art which he sold sometime prior to 1985.

Prince Sadruddin's interest in Islamic art was sparked in his youth by his paternal grandmother's library of Persian books, mystical texts and astrological treatises. While at Harvard in the 1950s, he would make purchases in New York, and eventually began to acquire from dealers in Paris, Geneva, and London. He would bid regularly at Sotheby's and Christie's auctions in Europe and North America. For advice, he looked to his friend Stuart Cary Welch, a noted historian of Islamic art at Harvard University.

His collection is vast and diverse, and includes Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Indian pieces dating from the tenth century. One example is a Quranic page of North African origin written with gold lettering in the Kufic script—it is more than 1,000 years old. Prince Sadruddin's Persian roots are well represented in calligraphic as well as pictorial specimens reflecting a range of periods and dynastic patrons. Also included are several examples of Ottoman calligraphies, manuscripts and paintings.

Over the years, parts of his collection were exhibited in New York, London, and Zurich, including a touring show, "Princes, Poets and Paladins,"[17] which was organized by the British Museum in 1998.[1][3] The full collection will soon be housed at a new museum being established by Prince Sadruddin's nephew, the present Aga Khan, in Toronto.[6] In his art collecting and in his work, he tried to bridge East and West, "I have a foot in the East and another in the West," he said.[3]


Independently wealthy and a member of an elite family, Prince Sadruddin nonetheless chose to dedicate his life to humanity. Described as a "urbane and cosmopolitan" and as a "true internationalist with contacts throughout the world" he is credited with strengthening the UNHCR by asserting its autonomy and credibility. Unlike "his predecessors, he had a truly global vision." He "could be fiercely independent and contemptuous of the great powers." Under his leadership, the UNHCR did not serve the interests of states but established itself as "the guardian of international refugee norms and as the holder of specialized knowledge and expertise on refugee issues"[18] He also asserted the UNHCR's independence from the USA; during his "tenure … the UNHCR shed its image of being a tool of the United States and gained credibility as an independent global actor." Within the UN system, he defended the UNHCR's turf when other agencies encroached on this. Despite his close personal ties with the U.S., he did not share "identical views with the U.S. on every issue" and sometimes enjoyed a "stormy relationship" with Washington. Loescher comments that some members of his extended family had "reputations for high living" but says that he was a "serious man." He was deeply committed to world peace and justice. One of his weaknesses was "to rely solely on a few trusted staff and family members."[10] Loescher argues that his bid for the Secretary-Generalship "tarnished his reputation" but that he was widely "viewed as one of the most effective High Commissioners and one of the strongest leaders in the UNHCR's history."[18]

Although by-passed for succession to the Imamate, he was a respected leader of the Ismaili community. Wherever he traveled he met the local community, advising them to "assimilate … and work to develop the countries they lived in."[18] The Guardian obituary speculates that spent his life "trying to prove that his father Aga Khan III had misjudged him when he decided against allowing him to inherit the imamate, and spiritual leadership, of the widely dispersed Shia Ismailis, and had instead named as heir his grandson Karim—Sadruddin's nephew—who became his successor in 1957." "The formidable old Aga Khan had apparently felt that Sadruddin would remain a playboy" but instead he "was a good man who believed in the duty of elites to improve the lot of humanity." Sadruddin placed "morals, ethics" and "tolerance" at the center of his credo.[5] "Certainly," says June Ducas, "Prince Sadruddin, whose name in Arabic means "defender of the faith," has based his life on Islamic principles—brotherhood, understanding and solidarity."[3]

Awards and decorations

A recipient of several honorary doctorates and national decorations from states as diverse as Pakistan, Poland, and the Vatican, as well as the United Nations Human Rights Award,[13] Prince Sadruddin was an honorary citizen of Patmos, Greece, where he owned a house, Bourgeois d’Honneur de Geneve, Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur (France), a recipient of the Pontifical Order of St. Sylvestre (Holy See) and the Order of the Star of the Nile (Egypt), and named Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his services to humanitarian causes and the arts.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Sydney Morning Herald, Genial Diplomat Shone Under Fire. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 The Times, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 The Telegraph, Hidden secrets of the universe. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 UNESCO, Sadruddin Aga Khan. UNESCO Courier. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  5. 5.0 5.1 The Guardian, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Aiglemont, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, Secrétariat de Son Altesse l'Aga Khan. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  7. SG appoints Sadruddin Aga Khan to coordinate humanitarian program for Iraq, Kuwait, border areas (SG/A/455, IK/15). United Nations.
  8. UN, SG appoints Sadruddin Aga Khan as personal representative for humanitarian assistance relating to Iraq-Kuwait crisis (SG/A/442, IK/1). Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  9. Boutros-Gali (1999), 10.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Loescher (2001), 140.
  11. David Chernushenko (ed.), High Minded Action, The Sustainable Sport Sourceline. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Amina Elbendary, Obituary: Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1933–2003), Al-Ahram Weekly. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  13. 13.0 13.1 UN News, Former UN refugee agency chief Sadruddin Aga Khan dies. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  14. Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan laid to rest in Collonge-Bellerive, Secrétariat de Son Altesse l'Aga Khan. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 United Nations, Secretary-General Hails Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan as True Statesman, in Remarks to Memorial Ceremony for Former Refugee Chief. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  16. Women's International Center, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan: Bringing the World Intelligent Awareness. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  17. Harvard University Art Museums, Exhibit at the Sackler to Present Islamic and Indian Paintings from One of the Most Important Private Collections in the World. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Loescher (2001), 141.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aga Khan, Sadruddin. 1986. Nuclear War, Nuclear Proliferation and Their Consequences; Proceedings of the Vth International Colloquium Organized by the Groupe de Bellerive, Geneva, 27-29 June 1985. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. ISBN 9780198255437.
  • Aga Khan, Sadruddin. 1998. Policing the Global Economy: Why, How and For Whom? Proceedings of the International Conference. London, UK: Cameron May.
  • Boutros-Ghali, Boutros. 1999. Unvanquished: A U.S.-U.N. Saga. London, UK: I.B. Tauris. ISBN 9781860644979.
  • Canby, Sheila R. 1998. Princes, Poets & Paladins: Islamic and Indian Paintings from the Collection of Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan. London, UK: Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Press. ISBN 9780714114835.
  • D'Souza, Frances, Jeff Crisp, and Stevanne Hill. 1985. The Refugee Dilemma. London, UK: Minority Rights Group. ISBN 9780946690237.
  • Ducas, J. 1998. Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: Fate uprooted his family, Islamic art brought his heritage home. Art & Antiques. 21(7):136.
  • Loescher, Gil. 2001. The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198297161.
  • Singh, Nagendra. 1984. The Role and Record of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Delhi, IN: Macmillan India. ISBN 9780333904534.
  • Welch, Anthony, and Stuart Cary Welch. 1982. Arts of the Islamic Book: The Collection of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. Ithaca, NY: Published for the Asia Society by Cornell University Press. ISBN 9780801415487.
  • Wijkman, Anders, and Lloyd Timberlake. 1985. Natural Disasters: Acts of God or Acts of Man. London, UK: International Institute for Environment and Development. ISBN 9780905347547.


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