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Kofi Annan

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No Quick Fix for the UN

30 March 2005

No Quick Fix for the UN

By Gwynne Dyer

“(Kofi Annan’s) lack of leadership, combined with conflicts of interest and a lack of responsibility and accountability, point to one, and only one, outcome: his resignation.” If that had been the conclusion of Paul Volcker, chairman of the independent committee of inquiry into the oil-for-food scandal at the United Nations, the UN secretary-general would have had to resign on the spot.

In reality, however, it was only Norm Coleman, a Republican senator who has devoted his career to attacking the UN, putting the worst possible spin on an interim report last Wednesday that actually said “there is neither convincing testimony…nor documentary evidence” that the secretary-general was guilty of any misconduct. When Annan was asked if he planned to resign over the report, he replied “Hell, no” — but it does make his task of reforming the UN even harder.

Kofi Annan may privately wish to strangle his son Kojo, who is suspected of trading on his presumed influence on the secretary-general for personal gain. In 1997, at the age of 22, Kojo walked straight into a $200,000-a-year job with a Swiss firm, Cotechna Inspections, and he did not alert his father to the possible conflict of interest when Cotechna got a fat contract from the UN to inspect food shipments to Iraq the following year. But that is just a family matter. The damage to the UN is more serious.

Chief executive officers don’t usually launch massive plans for root-and-branch reform of the organisations they lead in their last year in office (Annan retires next year at the end of his second five-year term), but this is a rescue mission. The UN was already under fire as a useless talking-shop that failed to stop most of the civil wars and genocides of the past fifteen years, but the combination of internal scandals and President George W. Bush’s headlong assault on the organisation have created an atmosphere of crisis.

Intervening in the internal affairs of sovereign states, even to stop civil wars, was no part of the UN’s original job description, but once the paralysis caused by the Cold War was at an end, people EXPECTED the UN to do something about such tragedies. They didn’t understand that it can do nothing whatever without the agreement and support of the great powers. It is a club, not an independent organisation, and the members who sit on the steering committee, the Security Council, decide what it can and cannot do.

The most vivid case of the UN’s “failure” in the 90s, the Rwanda genocide, shows how things really work. The real reason that the UN did not send large numbers of troops to stop the killing there was that the great powers, and especially the United States, were unwilling to make that kind of commitment.

President Bill Clinton had inherited a commitment to the UN peace-keeping operation in Somalia from the first President Bush, and had his fingers badly burned when the American force took substantial casualties in an ill-judged raid and subsequently had to be withdrawn under the pressure of US public opinion. Clinton didn’t want another African military commitment blowing up in his face in the midst of the 1994 mid-term elections in the US, and refused to allow any major UN commitment to Rwanda. Then later, when the full scale of the atrocity became clear, he blamed the UN for its “failure”.

Governments shift the blame for their own inaction onto the UN all the time. The only way to change that would be to remove the UN from the control of the states that created it, and set it up as an independent power with its own sources of income and its own army. That just isn’t going to happen.

Since it’s impossible to fix the main problem with the UN, its supporters have come up with a series of diversionary projects to fix lesser problems. The most important by far is the expansion of the Security Council from its current fifteen members, including five veto-wielding permanent members, to twenty-four members including six new permanent ones (without vetoes).

The five existing permanent members are simply the five great powers that were on the winning side in the Second World War: the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China. Japan and Germany weren’t on the list because they lost the war, and India wasn’t on the list because it was still a colony.

The new deal would give all of them permanent seats, as well as one Latin American country (Brazil) and two African countries (still to be decided). Secretary-General Annan is determined to push this reform through before September, but dissension in the ranks is so great that he may not actually succeed: the deal still provides no permanent seat for any Muslim country, and gives only three seats to Asia (half the world’s people) while it gives four to Europe (one-tenth of the world’s people).

Then there’s a project for a new human rights council to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission, and a plan to tackle the “crisis of relevance” at the UN’s Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament, and much other tinkering with the system. Some of it is well worth doing, but the main reason for popular impatience and disillusion with the United Nations, the fact that governments control the UN and not the other way round, cannot be changed. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 10 and 11. (“Kofi…serious”; and “The five…people”)

Sauce for the Gander

8 September 2004

Sauce for the Gander

By Gwynne Dyer

It didn’t get much media play, but did you notice what the Russian Chief of Staff, General Yuri Baluyevsky, said after the horrors at Middle School Number One in Beslan? He said that in future, Russia will be prepared to carry out preemptive strikes against terrorist bases anywhere in the world. One man who would not have been surprised to hear it is Kofi Annan.

Kofi Annan is only the Secretary-General of the United Nations, so the big powers don’t have to listen to him, but he is a clever man, and his job is to watch over the peace of the world. National leaders may care about that too, but they also have a hundred other priorities; world peace is Annan’s primary and almost his sole responsibility. And this is what the Ghanaian-born diplomat said at the UN’s General Assembly meeting last September, just six months after the United States, Britain and Australia invaded Iraq.

“Until now it has been understood that when states decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, they need the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations. Now, some say this understanding is no longer tenable, since an armed attack with weapons of mass destruction could be launched at any time, without warning, or by a clandestine group. Rather than wait for this to happen, they argue, states have the obligation to use force preemptively, even on the territory of other states.”

“This logic represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which world peace and stability have rested for the last 58 years.”

Many people saw Kofi Annan as an American pawn when he was elected Secretary-General, and he certainly was the US choice for the job, but what he was actually saying in that speech, in thinly disguised diplomatic code, was that the new US doctrine of preemptive war against potentially threatening groups and countries is illegal and a danger to world peace. He hasn’t been a very popular man in official Washington since then, but he is absolutely right, and General Yuri Baluyevsky is all the evidence he needs.

Most Americans were not alarmed when President George W. Bush wrote in the introduction to the National Security Strategy statement of 2002 that “America will act against emerging threats before they are fully formed. We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary….” Surely others would understand that America’s intentions were good even if it occasionally acted outside the law.

That confidence may be slightly dented in the United States after the Bush administration did act on that doctrine in invading Iraq, only to find that there was no “emerging threat” there to American security: no weapons of mass destruction, and no evidence of any links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Islamist terrorists who staged 9/11 and other atrocities. But it is only slightly dented.

Vice-President Dick Cheney still gets cheers when he trots out the line about the United States not needing a “permission slip” from the UN to attack countries it suspects of evil intentions towards America. The problem that is practically invisible from inside the United States is that other countries then don’t need “permission slips” to invade their neighbours, either. They can just announce that they have uncovered a grave threat to their security in some other country — they don’t actually have to prove it, any more than the United States did — and then they are free to invade it. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Russia was the natural next candidate to break out of the constraints of international law and embrace unilateralism. It had already been sneaking up on it, with highly illegal operations like the car-bomb assassination of former Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev in Qatar earlier this year by Russian intelligence agents (two of whom were caught and have been sentenced to life in prison). But that was just the learner slopes. Now General Baluyevsky has proclaimed a doctrine that claims the same right to use force on other people’s territory as part of the “war on terror” that the Bush administration claimed two years ago.

This is the doctrine under which Mr Bush invaded Iraq, although there were no terrorists there at the time. Which country will the Russians invade on the same pretext? They probably haven’t even chosen one yet: part of the reason Baluyevsky announced this doctrine now was simply to look tough and distract attention from Moscow’s failure to prevent the terrorist attacks. But the doctrine will still be there when the current outrage has subsided, to be used as and when Moscow wants.

Russia, unlike the United States, is not strong enough militarily to invade countries halfway around the world from it, but all the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus that used to be ruled by Moscow will certainly see themselves as potential targets. Eastern European countries won’t be feeling too happy about it either. And of course, other big countries like China and India are quite likely to follow where the US and Russia have blazed the trail.

Which is why Kofi Annan is looking so worn and worried these days. He has every right to be.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“That confidence …dented”; and “This is…wants”)