Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan has passed away. He was a good man, loved his job, loved his wife, and the United Nations certainly would not look the way they do today if it wasn’t for him.
Hmmm. Uhm. As author of a book on peacebuilders I certainly ought to write a more beautiful obituary of Kofi Annan, shouldn’t I? It could contain many more of these glamorous and slightly fantastic words like ‘peace’, ‘justice, ‘humanity’, ‘good’, ‘civil’ or ‘human rights’. I could dabble in such facile oxymorons like ‘soft-spoken spokesperson of peace’, ‘fighter for peace’ or something like ‘warrior for peace’ … Writing such an obituary should be easy…after all Annan has very carefully scripted what is known of his life and has watchfully controlled the public narrative of his career and especially of his time as Secretary-General. He had seen close-up how viciously and incessantly the media (US media in particular) and politicians (US politicians to be precise) have shredded, denigrated, dismissed and destroyed Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s public image, career and memory – up to the point that even today many titles on Annan’s death claim he was the first, not the second African Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Indeed, positively manipulating what was said and thought of him in Western media, policy-making circles and especially the US administration was probably one of Annan’s greatest skills. As every single Secretary-General of the United Nations, he sooner than later came into conflict with the United States during his tenure. Since their foundation the United Nations have been considered at best an extension of the US State Department, at worst an outrageously costly and incompetent press conference room. Secretary-Generals who speak their mind, think up their own policies and remind the US that it is, in the UN, only one state among 192 and bound to international law as everyone else, has never been part of the United States’ view of what the UN should do (no matter under which administration; even Obama was no exception since the lack of major conflict was rather due to his administration’s decision to cut down on the US global policeman role than to the UN’s restraining influence). Contrary to Dag Hammarskjöld, U Thant, Perez de Cuellar and Boutros-Ghali, however, Annan steered his policy initiatives and managed his public image in a way that he avoided any direct confrontation with the US – even if this meant giving up on the very idea of regulating warfare through international law and the United Nations.
He knew exactly which way to rub the US belly when he called the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 ‘illegal but legitimate’ or when he made sure that ‘reservations’ about the legality of the US’s Iraq invasion of 2003 were initially known only through the voices of French or Russian diplomats. In March 2003 when the US started its invasion of Iraq, Annan was content to warn of the ‘humanitarian consequences of war’ and to slip in the UN as post-conflict reconstruction lead agency. Not one word on the breach of the UN Charta or the respect for international law came across his lips, however. Even the usually highly discrete International Committee of the Red Cross was quicker in pointing out the many breaches of international law that the Iraq war represented. Annan himself only noted the illegality of the war out of the safe distance of one and a half years later in September 2004.
The Iraq war was not the only situation where thousands would die and the usually so eloquent Kofi Annan would comment with total silence. In 1994, Annan was Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations. The Security Council member states opposed calling the massacres in Rwanda a genocide and happily supported the cynical assessment of Iqbal Riza, Annan’s top aide, that the UN’s mandate in Rwanda had never been to protect civilians but to implement the Arusha peace accords (see Barnett’s opinion for Independent Inquiry). The debate whether external troops could have prevented or stopped the Rwandan genocide is highly speculative; yet, the report of the Independent Inquiry into the Actions of the United Nations during the 1994 Genocide makes plainly clear that Annan like others in this drama did not seek at any moment a more active, initiative and especially protecting role for the United Nations in general and the UN mission in Rwanda in particular. The report draws the picture of an overcautious apparatchik who is more concerned about not upsetting the organisation’s internal power system and ‘the rules’ than he is about the lives of Rwandans. While the report acknowledges the lack of political will by Security Council member states to engage further and deeper in Rwanda, and the translation of this into a lack of resources for the UN Headquarters, it also points clearly to the responsibility of the then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Under-Secretary General of Peacekeeping Operations Marack Goulding (until 1993), his successor Kofi Annan and his Assistant Secretary-General Iqbal Riza for failing to appropriately appreciate and plan for the highly volatile and consistently threatening situation in Rwanda in the build-up of the genocide.
Defenders of Annan will not fail to point out that it was himself who ordered this damning report when he had become Secretary-General and that he sought to redeem himself from the mistakes of 1994. Annan himself presented his tenure as a constant quest for peace in his interviews and biography, using every time exactly the same words as if his life and career were a well-rehearsed play. He also apologized for his role in the UN during the genocide – something he neither did for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi who died in the wake of the Iraq war, the thousands who were abused by peacekeepers all over the world, nor for those who died of diseases spread by them like the Haitians in 2010. If the actions of the UN during his tenure are to be called a strong promotion of ‘peace’, these populations probably beg to differ. Yet, as another of Annan’s self-promoting legends goes, it is the Rwanda experience that made him such a fervent supporter of the idea of intervention that he pushed for the integration of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine into the World Summit Declaration in 2005 …. Just to be again falling into deafening silence when France abused the RtoP doctrine in 2012 for its bogus intervention in Libya that triggered a civil war that is now ongoing in its sixth year.
These silences make it difficult to conceive of Annan as a guiding force for good as which he is heralded now. Rather, it appears that it remains an irony of Annan’s careerism that his will ‘to do the job well’ facilitated his cowardly hushing in the face of cynical and killing power politics (that also showed in his total deafness when it came to allegations of sexual abuse or the spreading of diseases by peacekeepers) quite as much as it enabled his initiatives like resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security or resolution 1261 on child soldiering. Annan’s commitment to peace was much more banal: he was simply a highly career-minded bureaucrat who happened to work in an organisation that is dedicated to world peace and the largest provider of humanitarian assistance on earth. Hard not to claim the moral high ground here. His concerns for his own advancement in the UN hierarchy made him hugely successful in manipulating the pompous language of peace that the UN uses in its declarations, initiatives and campaigns. Yet, when it actually came to preventing people from dying of armed violence he silently ceded to the Security Council member states and their often cynical and imperial understanding of ‘peace’ . He definitely lacked a warrior’s courage to speak truth to power. So, let’s stay with He was a good man, loved his job, loved his wife, and the United Nations certainly would not look the way they do today if it wasn’t for him.