Kofi Annan writes about why intervention by the United Nations has variously failed and succeeded
In January 1994, General Roméo Dallaire, commanding United Nations forces in Rwanda, sent the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), of which Kofi Annan was then deputy head, a reliable informant’s warning of imminent genocide; Dallaire concluded, “Peux ce que veux. Allons-y.” — “We can do whatever we want. Let’s go”, meaning all options were open to the U.N. Yet in the next 100 days, 800,000 people were slaughtered, in probably the single greatest act of genocide since the Second World War.
Annan, whose 40 years as a U.N. official ended with two terms as Secretary General, is almost painfully honest about why intervention has variously failed and succeeded in what has become one of the Security Council’s main tasks since the U.N. was founded in 1945 — not as a world government but as a forum where superpowers would stalemate one another rather than obliterate all humanity with a paranoid push on a button.
Intervention had to change. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the process started with mandates from the ideologically divided Security Council. The DPKO implemented these, but its authority was unclear, and troops on U.N. duty remained under national command. During the Cold War, this mattered little; troops were often sent to monitor clear borders between countries, and most deployments involved fewer than 100 troops. Between 1992 and 1994, however, the numbers swelled to 80,000 in 17 operations; most of the relevant disputes were and still are civil wars, with civilian populations forced to take sides, or actively participating.
Moreover, local leaders knew that now U.N. troops often had to fight their way through to populations they were mandated to protect. They also knew that member states had no will to support the DPKO and would withdraw if even a few peacekeepers were killed; after Rwandan troops murdered 10 Belgian soldiers, a Rwandan official said, “We watch CNN too.”
Member states nevertheless continued to give the U.N. inadequate mandates, to fund them inadequately, and to reject U.N. command over troops. While lying to their own publics about allegedly humanitarian interventions, governments also attacked DPKO officials for failing to do what they themselves would never let the U.N. do. Over Rwanda, Annan led the DPKO in asking over 100 governments for help, and not one made a serious offer. Yet the world knew what was happening; even the CIA called it genocide. In addition, the United States Congress persistently refused to pay U.N. dues; Washington owed $900 million by 1994.
Sometimes things turned out for the better. Over the former Yugoslavia, European embarrassment at renewed genocide in Europe enabled the U.N. to obtain NATO help. Over East Timor in 1999, the Indonesian army deceived their own president, B.J. Habibie, as they aided Indonesian militias to slaughter the East Timorese, who had voted overwhelmingly to secede. The militias also came close to killing the U.N. staff in the territory. Finally the Indonesian commander General Wiranto was embarrassed by his own lack of control over the army, Habibie accepted U.N. intervention, and Australian, Malaysian, and Thai troops promptly oversaw a peaceful secession.
Occasionally, powerful countries attempted disastrous unilateral operations. Washington, indifferent to the civil war in Somalia but obsessed with Mohammed Farah Aidid for his role in killing 25 Pakistani peacekeepers, planned to kidnap Aidid; the then Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, as was his habit, never informed the DPKO, and in October 1993 U.S. Special Forces launched an action which ended with the bodies of some of their troops stripped naked and publicly dragged through Mogadishu. The U.S. soon withdrew from UNOSOM II, the U.N. mission already there, which collapsed.
Change from within
Change came from within the U.N.; Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 report, An Agenda for Peace, had suggested that peacekeepers might be deployed without the consent of all parties to a conflict, and Annan extended this, proposing a responsibility to protect. This was tested in 2003, when Omar al Bashir used Janjaweed militias to attack Darfur in western Sudan — and the Security Council argued about whether the atrocities met the legal definition of genocide. Even though Annan told them that terrible suffering was being inflicted and the U.N. had a duty to intervene, the Security Council took four more years to despatch nothing more than a peacekeeping mission. By then the International Criminal Court had existed for nearly a decade, and in 2009 al Bashir became the first sitting head of state it indicted; he is not yet under arrest. Today, the court itself is at risk, as several African states are rightly angry that almost all indictees have been Africans.
The very creation of the court, however, was a triumph for Annan; the U.N. Charter requires the creation of conditions for justice and respect for the law. After India’s wrecking amendment had failed, the only obstacles to the ICC’s establishment were the United States, Cuba, and Pakistan. Annan talked with the Cuban foreign minister Felipe Pérez Roque, who then confirmed Fidel Castro’s agreement; Pakistan immediately agreed. The U.N.-hating U.S. ambassador John Bolton, now isolated and unable to hide behind Castro, gave in.
The new approach to intervention also means reaching ordinary citizens. In Gabon, Annan responded to journalists’ disquiet about his criticisms of Africa by saying that he reserved the right to criticise Africa and Africans, and in Harare he said the success of African solutions to African problems would lie in the spread of peace and equitable prosperity. The press and the public applauded, and the politicians sat silent. The U.N., for its own part, started putting economic and health issues higher on its agenda.
Annan never minces words; the Oil for Food programme in Iraq was inadequately audited by the U.N., but the Security Council should never have been tasked with it, and oil smuggling — which the permanent members knew about — received far less media coverage than the allegations of corruption in the programme. Dozens of countries, however, supported Annan against a vicious U.S. smear-campaign.
Among the book’s most troubling passages are Annan’s detailed accounts of the U.N.’s unceasing efforts in the tormented Middle East, including Iraq; the extent of duplicity, lying, betrayal, and evasion by all states and political groups involved, including the so-called great powers, could not be believed if it were not true. Much of that too, stems from domestic political considerations and not just from fear and hatred of the alleged other. It may be a miracle that the U.N. itself has not become a major participant in the horrors.
Without being abusive, Annan exposes the lies, hypocrisy, and indifference to mass suffering and death that seem to constitute almost the entire ethos of those who purportedly represent us. A book like this cannot be a happy one, but it is informed throughout by a sense that being human depends on mutual recognition by humans; Annan simply cites the Xhosa word Ubuntu. He has an enormous amount to teach us.
(Arvind Sivaramakrishnan is a senior deputy editor with The Hindu)