Monday, October 15, 2012

Interventions: A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan

It is difficult to imagine someone admitting to being in the leadership of an organization that allowed, with or without intervention, the major atrocities of the last decade of the 20th century. I may be a person who would have gone home spent and embittered with the taste of iron on my tongue. But Kofi Annan did not walk away, nor did he turn his eyes from the terrible events his leadership at the helm of the United Nations was unable to prevent. He does try to explain how it happened that the world stood by while Rwanda ran with blood.

Kofi Annan became head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in the U.N. in March of 1993 and received the rank of under-secretary-general. The Battle of Mogadishu, also known to Americans as “Black Hawk Down,” took place on October 3rd and 4th, 1993.

It was in the immediate aftermath of that devastating event that Force Commander Romeo Dallaire in Kigali, Rwanda sent an urgent request in early 1994 to raid the arms cache of the ruling Hutu political party, having received intelligence that the group was considering exterminating Tutsis, including killing Belgian U.N. peacekeepers in an effort to force a pull out. No government was willing to sacrifice domestic troops to “messy entanglements in a civil war.” So Dallaire was ordered to stand down.

Kofi Annan became the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations January 1, 1997 and left that role December 31, 2006. After his election to Secretary-General in 1997, Annan began to institute a new overarching policy: The responsibility to protect and intervention as a duty of care. The NATO bombing of Serbian troops in Kosovo in 1999 began without Security Council agreement. “There are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace.”

This personal history is readable. There are times in our lives when we follow world events with half an eye. With the disintegration of newspaper coverage in recent years and the change in news delivery to online blurbs, radio, or TV newscasters, all using the same quotes from leaders and spinning them as they will, it is difficult to get a real grasp of how diplomacy works, or if it does at all.

Annan won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, and what a bitter irony it must have seemed to him then. At his acceptance speech in December 2001, he observed that the world had entered the third millennium “through a gate of fire.” But what I was able to understand from this book is why Annan won the Peace Prize in the first place. He outlines the changes he had proposed to the goals of the U.N. and was able to usher in those changes to a great extent, despite using an imperfect and frustrating organization with competing interests among the players. As the Nobel committee commented at the time: the U.N. redefined sovereignty as a responsibility as much as a right and that sovereignty cannot be a shield behind which member states conceal their violations.

One comes to admire Annan’s strength of purpose and purity of intent throughout his years as Secretary General, and we begin to perceive the outline of U.S. interests in dominating the stage. “One of the great ironies of [the 2003-04 U.N. reform] was the manner in which the United States—which had done more than any other country to establish the U.N.—found itself in the position of being the main obstacle to reforming it.” Annan has nothing good to say about how Israel’s leaders continually shirked their moral and political duty to deal with their occupation of disputed territory, and is equally forthright about Arab states in the region: “decades of misrule heaped on centuries of decline.”

But he tells of his successes, too: putting the individual, rather than states, at the center of the U.N. focus, developing the Millenium Development Goals, bringing to justice noted war criminals, working with businesses and governments to deal with HIV/Aids, averting escalations of aggressions in the Middle East. After leaving office, and using the skills and knowledge he learned there, Annan helped to create a leadership-sharing government in Kenya at the time of the disputed election in 2008. It may be the accomplishment he is most proud of:
My role in mediating the violent 2008 Kenyan political crisis, backed by a remarkable international and African support network, was one for which, in some ways, I had spent my entire decade-long tenure as secretary-general preparing. It was perhaps the hardest, most intensive, and enduring of all my interventions in the affairs of another country, and a deal that required me to draw on every aspect of my experience of diplomacy and energy for peacemaking—this time at the heart of my own continent.”

At the end of the book, Annan discusses the decisions which brought war to Iraq. As a diplomat, Annan felt the decision to go to war was a failure on the part of the U.S. leadership which brought only shame, death, and destruction in its wake. He addresses the Oil-for-Food Programme which became a painful reminder that greed and self-interest often parades as generosity when countries seek their own interests at the expense of another.

What we should give him credit for is that, despite the outrageous challenges an international body faces in light of bruising collisions between member states, such a man would spend his time struggling for gains that make a difference to the poorest and most disenfranchised among us.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. This sounds really fascinating. I once read a book on the Srebenica massacre in Bosnia, which focused on how the international community stood impotent while the slaughter went on unstopped. It's hard to understand how things like this can happen in today's world, but they do, all the time, and we need to understand how our leaders think and why they allow the unthinkable at times.

    1. The U.N. has had a history of impotence because all governments like to think of themselves as sovereign. But there are times when the pressure of the international community is best exerted in concert.