'Interventions: A Life in War and Peace' by Kofi Annan
Some years ago, at an African Union Conference in Addis Ababa, I heard Kofi Annan say to an audience stuffed with life presidents that “one of the tests of leadership is knowing when to leave the stage”. All the big offenders were present – Mugabe from Zimbabwe, Bongo from Gabon, Obiang from Equatorial Guinea. They sat stony faced amid much foot-shuffling and nervous laughter as President Chissano of Mozambique, who was in the chair, pointed at them saying, “and we all know who Kofi was talking about, don’t we?” It was an electric moment. Ever since, I have had a soft spot for Kofi Annan.
He was born in Ghana and spent a lifetime working for the UN, the final 10 years as general secretary. Before that he served as the deputy chief of peacekeeping operations, which put him at the centre of some of the world’s worst crises – Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, up to and including Afghanistan and Iraq.
This is not a straightforward memoir. Rather than telling his story chronologically, the book is divided into themes. There are chapters dealing with peacekeeping, Africa, the impact of Aids, UN reform and, of course, 9/11 and its aftermath. For most of the first 40 years of its existence, the UN was paralysed by the Cold War. All that changed with the coming of Gorbachev.
Once the deadlock on the Security Council was broken, the UN was suddenly relevant. Peacekeepers could now be deployed to places where hitherto they would never have been allowed – monitoring the ceasefires between Iran and Iraq, supervising elections in Nicaragua and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. The first Gulf war, to clear Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, was conducted under a UN mandate.
The end of the Cold War also gave rise to a new phenomenon – the rise of failed states, such as Somalia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, where increasingly the UN found itself being called upon to insert peacekeepers into situations where there was no peace to keep. The number of missions requiring UN boots on the ground mushroomed.
Eventually fatigue set in and the big powers became increasingly reluctant to intervene in other people’s civil wars, especially those that involved taking casualties. The United States, following its failed intervention in Somalia in 1995, turned in on itself, only re-engaging (and then only on its own terms) after 9/11. The UN is often blamed for failures, but one should never forget that it is entirely dependant on the political will of its members – which, as Annan recounts, is all too often lacking.
In Rwanda, for example, despite clear warnings about what was afoot and a Security Council resolution to dispatch up to 5,500 troops, not one of the Council’s members was willing to contribute. “We spent days frantically lobbying more than 100 governments,” writes Annan. “I called dozens myself… We did not receive a single serious offer. It was one of the most shocking and deeply formative experiences of my entire career.” The result was catastrophe: 800,000 people slaughtered in 100 days.
On Iraq, Annan is unequivocal. A second UN resolution was required. The war, he says, was “without global legitimacy or foresight”. He goes on: “By behaving in the way that it did, the United States invited the perception among many in the world – including long-term allies – that it was becoming a greater threat to global security than anything Saddam could muster. This was a self-inflicted wound of historic proportions…”
But it is not all doom and gloom. Amid the undoubted failures, there have been successes. The UN supervised peaceful transitions from chaos to stability in Cambodia, Mozambique, East Timor and a dozen other small countries. But perhaps Annan’s greatest contribution has been his effort, recounted here, to focus the UN and its members on the bigger picture – the provision of health, education, clean water and good governance, for the poorest people in the poorest countries. Also on his watch, the UN began to challenge the notion of sovereign immunity, the idea that, safe behind their frontiers, tyrants could inflict whatever degree of suffering they chose on their people without consequences. This has resulted in the International Criminal Court and special tribunals such as that on the former Yugoslavia.
This is a good, lucid book by a wise and compassionate man who, despite having spent much of his life in the political stratosphere, never loses sight of the plight of the little man. A diplomat to his fingertips, but one who, when circumstances required, was capable of displaying steel. A man who did his best in difficult, sometimes impossible, circumstances and who acquitted himself honourably. It should be of interest to anyone whose horizons extend beyond the white cliffs of Dover.