President Jorge Sampaio (Former President of Portugal;UN High Representative)

27.07.2009 - Interview conducted by Darnell Summers & Mailin Obermueller


Jorge Sampaio’s political career began in Portugal in the 1960s. The head of an association of Lisbon law students opposing the dictatorship of Antónie de Oliveira Salazar, he became the Secretary-General of the Federation of Student Movements at 21. His commitment to politics strengthened over the following years, and he spent much of his career as a lawyer (spanning the years 1965-1974) defending political prisoners in front of military tribunals.

A member of the Socialist party from 1978, Mr. Sampaio advanced to a Member of Parliament and then in 1989, was appointed the 62nd Mayor of Lisbon. He announced his wish to run for presidency in 1995, and indeed won the election in the first round in January 1996 to become President later that year on the 9th of March. He was subsequently re-elected to serve a second term in 2001. During his presidency (1996-2006), Mr. Sampaio weathered a period of political instability and is best remembered for the importance he placed on social and cultural affairs throughout his presidential terms. On the international political scene, Mr. Sampaio oversaw the return of Macau to China (December 1999) and also fostered important publicity and support to the cause of East Timor’s independence.

Following his presidency, Mr. Sampaio was appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General as his first Special Envoy for the Global Plan to Stop Tuberculosis in 1996. Due to his continued dedication, Mr. Sampaio was also designated as the High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations by current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

In recognition of his work over the years, Mr. Sampaio was awarded the North-South Prize of the Council of Europe in 2008. This prize is given to public figures recognised for their defence of pluralist democracy, their promotion of North-South partnership and solidarity, and their deep commitment, outstanding achievements and hope generated in the field of protection of human rights.

In his lecture at the ICD’s International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy, Mr. Sampaio held a lecture entitled “Intercultural Dialogue and the Younger Generation: The Challenges Ahead”. He stressed that due to the paradigmatic shift we are currently experiencing in the world of diplomacy and foreign policy, there is both a great need and numerous opportunities for new types of diplomacy to emerge. As such, he praised the Symposium’s focus on cultural diplomacy for being particularly topical. Mr. Sampaio linked these changes in the diplomatic arena to the emergence of the Alliance of Civilizations, and spoke further about its aims, methods and ongoing projects, such as the Dialogue Café.

Mr. Sampaio granted the following interview, in which he talked about Portugal’s history, his personal political experience and his hopes for the young generation.

Your interest and engagement in politics began at a very early age. How has your attitude changed as you gathered more experience?

I think that I continue to be militant, even though I am going to be 70 this year. [Laughs]. I've been through many things: the fight against the dictatorship; I’ve been a Member of Parliament; a Member of Government; Mayor of Lisbon; and President of the Republic for two mandates lasting five years each. So of course, I am more tired today than I was when I started. But I still believe in the importance of maintaining a degree of militancy concerning some fundamental principles. Age is age—and yes, it gives you more experience: the older you become, the more you’ve seen, and maybe you are more pragmatic than you were fifty years ago. But I continue to be interested in all sorts of themes, and cultural diplomacy is one of them.

Like many other countries, Portugal was once a colonial power. How has that affected its history and how are the relationships to its former colonies now?

Well, there were major problems due to Portugal's colonial history. It’s also important to remember that Portugal wasn’t a free country until 1974. And before that time, it was really a very harsh place. For instance, if you were publicly active against the Gulf Oil Corporation you could go to prison. And many did. Many others were in exile in France, Germany or Switzerland; still others went to war. I was fortunate enough to be free from the army, but in fact it was the military that pushed the dictator away. They were fed up with the situation, and they could see that there was no military solution to it. In that sense, the military coup forced the change of government and, with that, the decolonisation process started.

This was in the sixties; I was just graduating at the time. My whole generation felt very connected to the movement and, through this, to each other. A lot of the first generation leaders of the liberation movement were in fact good friends of mine from University. Many of them disappeared and continued in their activities, but we met again when independence came. That was a really fascinating time.

Peace came quickly after this. Since that time, many corporations have been established and developments have taken place, and now there are many activities that are conducted by the Portuguese in the former colonies. We have come to a point where the past is the past, and everybody is looking towards the future.

That is good to hear, considering the problems facing the world.

Well, yes. Facing the world at the moment, we have the serious problem of an economic and financial crisis of unexpected dimensions. We don’t yet know how it will all turn out, but as is unfortunately usually the case, those who are poorer will probably suffer more. So I think that in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, in terms of food, health, housing and so on and so forth, the situation will become more and more difficult.

You just mentioned the problem of food-shortage in sub-Saharan Africa. Where do you think cultural diplomacy fits into that issue?

Well, I think—to put it very bluntly—we first of all have to ensure that they have sufficient food. And we also have to take care of issues such as maternal health, housing, and the predicament of both the young and the elderly. There is also, of course, the matter of education. If you have young people going to school, this will shape their attitude towards development and culture. Only after these basic needs have been met, can people begin discussing issues of cultural diplomacy.

You have a great wealth of experience to draw on from your political career. Keeping this in mind, what in your opinion are the major challenges facing the young generation at this point in time, and how should these be faced?

The challenges at the moment are equality of opportunities, development, justice, and, of course, peace. Peace is ultimately the basic need that humans work for. I hope that the young generation will continue to have peace. And that we can overcome the economic, social and financial crisis that affects so many people.

Do you think the young generation will manage?

I hope so.

Thanks for your time.