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Kofi: challenges and conundrums

By Toby Vogel  -  22.11.2012 / 03:30 CET
Kofi Annan's memoirs are more concerned with shaping his legacy than tackling the hard questions faced by the UN

Six years after stepping down as secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan's main preoccupation, judging by his memoirs, appears to be securing his legacy. “Interventions: a life in war and peace” does, on occasion, settle scores, but its overall tone is authoritative rather than vindictive. Here is what happened, beyond doubt and challenge, Annan seems to be saying. He even manages to find kind words for President George W. Bush, whose administration used the UN in the run-up to the Iraq war and then set out to undermine it when things did not work out. 

But on the core question haunting the UN during his leadership – he was peacekeeping chief in 1992-96 and secretary-general in 1997-2006 – Annan still does not get it. This is the conundrum of how to confront dictators bent on destroying their, or another, people.

Annan's tenure was not a happy one. On several occasions – most prominently in Rwanda and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in Darfur, the Congo and elsewhere – the UN and its member states abandoned the civilians they were supposed to protect. The contentious run-up to the war in Iraq consumed much of Annan's time and patience halfway through his tenure, when the UN's biggest member state, the United States, seemed bent on disabling the organisation. Then, in August 2003, the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad killed two dozen UN staffers including one of Annan's most trusted aides, Sergio Vieira de Mello. A little later, Sudan's brutal, dirty counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur gained momentum. All this unfolded against a backdrop of unrelenting horrors in Congo.

The genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia provided a shock to the system that led to reform of the UN's peacekeeping doctrine, outlined in the Brahimi report of 2000. “But such reform could not end the true problem of the early 1990s: the international community's complicity with evil – of standing by in full knowledge of horrors on the ground that it had the power to stop,” Annan writes.

As a consequence, he now saw his greatest challenge as “creating a new understanding of the legitimacy, and necessity, of intervention in the face of gross violations of human rights”. This work would, in due course, lead to the adoption of a new doctrine, the ‘responsibility to protect', according to which outsiders must step in when rulers commit large-scale human-rights abuses. Perhaps the purest application of this new norm, before it had even been codified, was NATO's war against Serbia to protect Kosovo in 1999 – a war that Annan rightly described as legitimate, even though it did not have the UN's backing.

But Kosovo turned out to be a high point in liberal interventionism, a special case that was not to be repeated, except in equally special circumstances, for example Sierra Leone. (The UN's inept administration of post-war Kosovo, incidentally, contributed to growing international disenchantment with the new doctrine of protecting civilians against predators. Many governments began questioning whether intervention was worth it if its outcome was a diminished state such as Kosovo.)

Annan does not really engage with the fate of liberal interventionism, and despite its title, the book offers a remarkably flat view of intervention, devoid of any nuance. Annan seems to believe that there are two basic options available to the ‘international community' when faced with atrocities: to do nothing, or to invade. From such shaky grounds, he then proceeds to a vigorous defence of his view that events in Darfur did not constitute genocide, while at the same time accusing the interventionists of “obsession” with the term. He goes as far as to suggest that the genocide argument delayed a debate on what ought to be done in Darfur (not very much, it turned out).

The most interesting episode in the book concerns Annan's mediation in a post-election crisis in Kenya in 2008 – “perhaps the hardest, most intensive, and enduring of all my interventions in the affairs of another country”, he writes. Annan's account is slightly clouded by his preoccupation with legacy: it appears somewhat premature to judge the 2008 deal – no matter how solid – as “perhaps the most enduring of all my interventions”.

But Annan's considerable diplomatic skills and his engaging personal style come through best in his discussion of Africa. “Africa, the poverty of Africa, the violence of Africa, is not the inexorable product of its environment, but rather the consequence of choices and decisions made by its leaders,” he writes. This is the core of Annan's optimism about world affairs, because it opens up the possibility that individual leaders might be susceptible to calls for reason delivered by a persuasive diplomat. But, as Annan's experience earlier this year in negotiating with Bashar Assad, Syria's dictator, suggests, that is hardly a recipe for confronting evil.

Interventions: a life in war and peace.

By Kofi Annan with Nader Mousavizadeh (372 pages). Allen Lane, 2012, €30

© 2014 European Voice. All rights reserved.
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