“Of the most sustained problem was the management of expectations”

Raymond Whitaker

In his memoir, Kofi Annan offers a frank insight into his 10 years as UN secretary-general, during which time all eyes were on the man who campaigned tirelessly to end conflict and who fought hard to put the individual at the centre of every peacekeeping intervention.

Interventions: A Life in War and Peace
Kofi Annan with Nader Mousavizadeh, Allen Lane, London, 2012, 400pp, ISBN: 9781846142970

Kofi Annan was not only the first African from south of the Sahara to become secretary-general of the United Nations, he was the first to be appointed from within the ranks of the UN itself. By the time he took office on 1 January 1997, he had been an international civil servant for nearly 35 years, but if the Security Council powers thought that they were getting a passive bureaucrat who would simply follow their wishes, they were wrong.

In this book, more a series of essays on the challenges he faced as secretary-general than a straightforward memoir, Annan emphasises that he wanted a UN that would “step up rather than stand by… and be guided by a purpose greater than protecting the interests of states”. Pointing out that the UN Charter begins with the words “We the Peoples” and not “We the States”, he argues that the organisation has a duty to intervene when fundamental human rights are threatened, a “responsibility to protect” that overrides national sovereignty. How this applies in practice is an issue that dominated his ten years at the top of the UN hierarchy.

Though Annan’s two terms were bisected almost exactly by the 9/11 attacks and their immediate aftermath, it is clear that his governing philosophy was shaped by bitter experience in his last post before becoming secretary-general: that of UN director of peacekeeping. He took on the role in March 1993, just as the UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia was heading for collapse. The following year, blue-helmeted soldiers watched helplessly as Rwanda descended into genocide, and the year after that it happened again, this time in Srebrenica, where Serb forces slaughtered 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in a UN-declared “safe area”. In each case, the UN forces had gone in without a clear mandate to shield civilians from violence. They did not even have the means to defend themselves adequately, and ended up as hostages, causing worse damage to the UN’s reputation than almost any episode in its history.

Few are better qualified than Annan, whose first peacekeeping mission was in the aftermath of the Arab-Israel War in 1973, to analyse what led to these disasters. The model of peacekeeping, he points out, derived from an era when a ceasefire had already been declared between warring states, and the blue helmets were policing an agreed demarcation line with the consent of all parties. Now the UN was being asked to enter mainly domestic conflicts, with a shifting array of belligerents, not all of whom had agreed to its participation. And the number of missions was proliferating: before 1988, the UN had launched only a dozen peacekeeping operations in its history, but in the next four years there were another ten. As Annan drily notes, “The gulf between ends and means began to widen fatefully.”

Despite these failures, the principle of humanitarian intervention had been established. Nato invoked it in Kosovo in 1999, with Annan’s support. But he makes it clear that the American and British invasion of Iraq in 2003, in defiance of the UN, was a perversion of the principle. The following year he described the war as illegal, probably ending any likelihood of a third term as secretary-general, had he desired one. But in the long run it was the moral authority of Britain and the USA that suffered, rather than that of the UN or its head.

And that is the lesson of this book: ultimately, the UN, and its secretary-general, rests on moral authority. Despite being in control of 44,000 staff and a budget of $10 billion, Annan could only offer himself as an enabler, an impartial mediator with endless reserves of patience, willing to listen to international pariahs such as Saddam Hussein while being attacked for even meeting them. In his final paragraphs he alludes to his attempt this year to mediate in Syria, which failed for the same reason as many others during his time in office: the lack of good faith among the parties, and in the Security Council (no humanitarian intervention here). What matters is that he tried.

Much of Annan’s account deals not with war or peacekeeping, but with the many other ways he sought to make the UN speak for people rather than states. He is proud of his part in drawing up the Millennium Development Goals, his success in bringing NGOs into the work of the UN, and the creation of the International Criminal Court and the UNAIDS agency. It is through such persistent, unsung efforts that the organisation gained prestige, but it has just had a sharp reminder of how easily it can be squandered.

Though the UN did not have peacekeepers in Sri Lanka, humanitarian workers were pulled out of the war zone five months before the conflict between the Colombo government and the Tamil Tigers came to a bloody end in mid-2009, leaving thousands of civilians to their fate. Some 40,000 died in that period, but a UN report issued in November 2012 says many senior UN staff “did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility”, amid “an institutional culture of trade-offs”.

This lends all the more force to Annan’s comment that “of all the difficulties we confronted during my tenure as secretary-general, perhaps the most sustained problem was the management of expectations”. Possibly, he adds, that is the fate of the UN: “to disappoint the expectations of those who see it as the panacea to the world’s problems, but to succeed, however incompletely, in giving voice to aspirations of individual men and women…” For all the upheavals on his watch, he makes a well-argued case for having done all he could to leave the world a better place than he found it.

About the author:

Raymond Whitaker is a writer and editor


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