Saturday, December 16, 2006

The world's conscience leaves the scene

"My friends, our challenge today is not to save Western civilisation, or Eastern for that matter. All civilisation is at stake, and we can save it only if all peoples join together in the task." -UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

Former South Korean foreign minister Ban Ki-Moon was sworn in a few days ago as the new United Nations Secretary-General. Ban swore to conduct himself solely in the interests of the United Nations and to refuse to accept instructions from any government or other authority, which surely infuriated the Bush administration. Soon will end the decade long tenure of Kofi Annan. Ban certainly has big shoes to fill as he replaces one of the world's few true statesmen, widely admired for his character and integrity.

Annan's 10 years in charge of the organization were eventful. He was originally installed at the post at the behest the United States, who did not want the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali to serve a second term. This caused some resentment as only three or four of the UN's over 200 member states oppose Boutros-Ghali's re-election. But the organization was clearly much better served by the quiet, self-effacing and Nobel Peace Prize winning Ghanaian than by the obnoxious and imperious Egyptian.

Annan's accession was quite a coup for the United States because Boutros-Ghali was strongly backed by France; shortly after his departure from the UN, Boutros-Ghali was named head of La Francophonie, France's answer to Britain's Commonwealth. However, the Clinton administration calmed France by naming a Frenchman as head of peacekeeping. This was back in a time when the US government practiced diplomacy.

This piece in Foreign Affairs magazine reviews James Traub's book 'The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American Power' which takes a look at Annan's never dull decade as the world's top diplomat.

Annan had one of the most challenging tasks of any secretary-general in the organization's history. The end of the Cold War and of the bipolar world unleashed great hope around the planet that the UN would finally be allowed to function as its founders intended. Now, whenever there's a problem anywhere in the world, it's pretty much expected that the UN will deal with it.

But resources has not kept pace with these increased expectations. During Annan's first term, the Clinton administration was generally open to working with the organization but the Republican Congress regularly withheld dues because the UN wouldn't do whatever the Congress wanted. During Annan's second term, the Bush administration worked quite actively to undermine the organization at every turn. That Annan successfully wooed the notoriously isolationist Sen. Jesse Helms is a testament to his power of persuasion.

When the rest of the world expects more and more but the most powerful member is dedicated to undercutting you at every turn (except when it needs your moral stamp of approval), that's a pretty tough balancing act.

One thing the UN has come to do fairly well under Annan's leadership is nation building. To the point where, as I mentioned earlier, they are the default organization whenever a country or society needs to be rebuilt. Further, they have the international credibility as a neutral organization when it comes to humanitarian coordination and reconstruction. The disaster in Iraq only serves to underline both the UN's competence at nation building and the necessity of a non-military organization making it happen.

Under his leadership, the UN has also tried to bring human rights to the forefront. In 1998, the Rome Treaty was negotiated and the International Criminal Court to try the world's worst war criminals created. Additionally, many of his appointees have been vocal in raising international awareness about the world's worst crises. Sergio Vieria de Mello about East Timor. Jan Egeland about Northern Uganda and the DR Congo. Jan Pronk about Darfur. Olara Otunnu about child soldiers.

Some criticize him for not doing more about these things but few offer actual alternatives. Most criticisms of the UN, especially within the US, are based on an ignorance about how the organization actually works.

The position of secretary-general has been described as that of a secular Pope. And it's quite accurate. Much like the Pope, the secretary-general's international authority is almost entirely moral. Just as the Pope only has executive authority over the Catholic Church hierarchy, the secretary-general only has executive authority of the UN's bureaucracy.

People have often demanded that Annan "do something" about Iraq or Darfur, but he can not snap his fingers and send troops. The UN is barred from having a standing army. Troops can only sent if the Security Council agrees... and member states provide their own men for the mission. Those who demand the secretary-general "do something" ought to specify what exactly he should do.

Annan's remarkable tenure as 'secular Pope' was marred by one serious problem and one outright disaster, both involving Iraq.

With the massively increased expectations of the UN, it's been suggested that the post of secretary-general be split into two. One would focus on the diplomat-in-chief post that Annan was so masterful at. The other would focus on the actual internal management of the UN bureaucracy and its hugely important member agencies, an area which is reportedly Ban's strength. Continuing the papal analogy, just as John Paul II was a better diplomat and salesman for his organization's ideals than an administrator, Annan was too.

This was manifested in the oil-for-food scandal. The oil-for-food agency was set up as a way to allow Saddam's Iraq to sell oil and (theoretically) ensure the profits went to feed ordinary Iraqis instead of the regime's bank accounts. The scandal was that there was apparently a fair degree of corruption (corruption? in the oil industry? unthinkable!).

The oil-for-food program was unprecedented. Never before had the UN run the entire economy of a nation without having some sort of political stewardship over it. Annan was strongly opposed to the UN running oil-for-food but the Security Council, at the Clinton administration's behest, shoved it down his throat.

This proved the perfect excuse for those looking for an axe to grind. Annan never wanted the program in the first place but got all the blame when the exact problems he feared came to pass.

The other scar on his tenure is the US Aggression against Iraq. That the Aggression was launched despite UN opposition (and of almost the entire rest of the world, including for that matter the Pope) was seen by many as the organization's Mussolini Moment... referring to the League of Nations' failure to prevent or reverse Fascist Italy's conquest of Ethiopia, the incident widely seen as the beginning of the end for that organization. But despite massive protestations, the Ghanaian couldn't prevent the disaster, and that sense of helplessness drove him to despair.

Annan is man of great honor and dignity but he is also a man who has an almost religious belief in the institution of the United Nations. Anyone who thinks he's 'just another sleazy politician' should read the part in Traub's book where Annan is so distraught by the Iraq atrocity that he is temporarily rendered unable to speak. That's not expediency. That's principle. Can you imagine Bush, a great man of principle according to his apologists, being shaken to the point of speechless about what's happening in Iraq?

When the Bush administration went to the UN hat-in-hand and asked them for their expert help. Annan could've been prideful and told the administration, "You made this mess. Fix it yourselves." In fact, most of the UN bureaucracy wanted him to do exactly that.

But Annan believed that the ideals of the organization were more important than settling political scores, even with a government that, despite its decision to ok the US invasion of Afghanistan, had done nothing but viciously attack and undermine the UN for not sufficiently being its lap dog.

Annan swallowed his pride, ignored the opposition of most of his colleagues, and decided to ok a UN humanitarian and reconstruction presence in US-occupied Iraq. He did so because he believed the well-being of Iraqis was more important than spiting Pres. Bush and his lackeys.

Sadly, the UN mission in Iraq was seen by some extremists as an extension of US rule. As a result, a a massive bomb at UN headquarters in Bagdhad wounded over 100 UN staff and killed 22, including the widely respected Sergio Vieria de Mello.

The bombing was claimed by followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,who issued the following statement:

We destroyed the U.N. building, the protectors of Jews, the friends of the oppressors and aggressors. The U.N. has recognized the Americans as the masters of Iraq. Before that, they gave Palestine as a gift to the Jews so they can rape the land and humiliate our people. Do not forget Bosnia, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Chechnya.

The UN is attacked by the Americans as being anti-American, by the Israelis as being anti-Semitic and by the Jihadists for being pro-American and pro-Israeli.

Would you want this job?

Many lesser men would've quit, thus satisfying Christian and Muslim theocrats alike. That Annan kept going is a testament to his Job-like patience and strength of conviction and character.

Kofi Annan is not a saint, though he's about as close as any public figure can get nowadays. Some argue that he should've resigned or spoken out more forcefully when he was civilian head of UN peacekeeping during the genocides in the Balkans and Rwanda. I think that's a fair comment.

I know this piece seems like a hagiography but I can't help but concluding that UN will sorely miss this great man. At a time when the powers great and small genuflected to the gods of destruction and violence, Annan was a beacon for the most noble principles of morality and humanity. I hope Ban Ki-Moon is up to the job.

Update: This editorial from The Los Angeles Times also praises Mr. Annan for leaving the UN a stronger institution. And perhaps that's precisely why he's so hated by the American far right.


At 10:02 AM, Blogger Don Thieme said...

I also hope that the United Nations will continue to move forward in coming years as it has most recently under the able direction of Kofi Annan. The right wing bloggers in the United States have been calling for his impeachment. It appears that we have rather succeeded in keeping John Bolton from confirmation and Kofi has managed to step down on his own terms while shining some light on the present administration's unilateral adventures overseas.


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