Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Kofi Annan's Lost Promise at the United Nations

Kofi Annan's tenure as Secretary-General of the United Nation's came to an end on New Year's Eve. Idealistic and urbane, Annan was a perfect example of a worldly diplomat ready to lead the international body into the new era of 21st century globalization. Yet, despite the promise of his first five years, his term at the U.N. may be most identified with the failure of the U.N. to confront the Iraq crisis and adapt to a changing international environment of American global preponderance. This Los Angeles Times story provides some background:

Annan's first five years in the wood-paneled office at the top of the shimmering U.N. headquarters were a honeymoon of sorts. Annan's manner is gentle, and nonconfrontational, and he is so soft-spoken that he can hardly be heard without a microphone. When perturbed, his voice gets lower, not louder. When anxious, he clenches his jaw and twists his large gold ring. That demeanor gave him a kind of regal aloofness, and a gracious yet distant charm that served him well as a nonpartisan mediator, but sometimes made him seem to lack fire.

He and his Swedish wife, Nane, the elegant niece of Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg, traveled around the U.S. and the world, giving a human face to an otherwise impersonal institution and imparting Annan's belief that every person has equal rights, and that a government's duty is to protect them.

Annan introduced the doctrine of "humanitarian intervention" — that borders should not shield governments that cannot or will not protect their own people. The idea was born in part of his feelings of impotence and guilt as the head of peacekeeping during massacres in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica and in Rwanda that the U.N. did little to stop. Although some countries initially resisted, in 2005, 191 leaders endorsed "the responsibility to protect," something Annan considers one of his top achievements.

For championing human rights and development, and "for bringing new life to the organization," Annan and the U.N. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. He became known as "a diplomatic rock star," and the spotlight seemed to shine on the U.N. as a central stage in world affairs. But the second half of his tenure would be much darker.

The Sept. 11 attacks made the Bush administration more determined to strengthen national security — but, Annan later argued, at the expense of multilateralism and human rights. In 2002, President Bush challenged the Security Council to confront Iraq or stand aside, and while the U.S. attempted for six months to gain the U.N.'s stamp of legitimacy for its long-planned invasion, it ended up going into Iraq without it.

Annan cited the failure to stop the Iraq war as the worst moment of his career.

"I really did everything I could to try to see if we could stop it," he said, including desperate rounds of phone calls and meetings with every leader he could reach, with every proposal he could think of. In April 2003, weeks after the invasion began, Annan literally lost his voice....

Washington went into Iraq without the U.N.'s blessing, but it also had to do without significant U.N. help in rebuilding the country, an essential piece of postwar planning that the administration had assumed the world body would take on.

Annan's career and the image of the U.N. would sustain another heavy blow in 2003 when revelations surfaced of payoffs and subversion of the oil-for-food program. Saddam Hussein had constructed a massive kickback scheme to siphon billions from the U.N.-run aid program; Security Council members, including the U.S., quietly allowed the diversions, considering it the cost of keeping weapons materials out of Hussein's hands.

An 18-month investigation led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker found that Annan was responsible for grave mismanagement, and charged several staff members with conflict of interest, but found "no evidence" of wrongdoing by Annan.

Yet the inquiry left questions unanswered about Annan's meetings with executives from Cotecna, a Swiss firm that employed his son Kojo and that won a $10-million contract three months after the company officials' last meeting with the secretary-general.
Annan's failures at the U.N. were both individual and institutional. Individually, Annan's prone to see the world in terms of moral equivalence, and hence he puts the United States and Israel on the same moral plane as the world's most brutal regimes. See Dore Gold's book, Tower of Babel: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos, for more on the illegitimacy of the U.N. system. Institutionally, Annan faced the realities of the U.N.'s structural weakness in a world of naton-states and power politics. See Michael Glennon's Foreign Affairs article, "Why the Security Council Failed," for more on the impotence of the world body amid an international system that subordinates international legal regimes to the interests of the system's most powerful actors.

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