As the civil war in Syria rages on, with close to 90,000 people having died so far, and United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdhar Brahimi having admitted failure of his mission, the notion of a UN or international “intervention,” seems to be all but dead. While there is a glimmer of hope in the situation, with the government willing to negotiate, the opposition is adamant that it will not have anything to do President Bashar Assad. This book gets to the heart of such “interventions,” as Kofi Annan would have handled them. As a former Secretary-General of the world body and one of the well-respected international diplomats, Kofi Annan shares his deepest insights, fears as well as moments of truth in this riveting book, which is sure to keep you engrossed.
Annan tells the story of his career, which started off with him working for the Economic Commission for Africa in 1965, following three years with the WHO. This was followed by a Master’s degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1971 and work for the UN in Geneva. He points out to his motivation for joining the UN and subsequent shift in his thinking from that of primarily serving Ghana, his home country to being a civil-servant to the rest of the world. He says:” Between the forces of bureaucratic inertia, bad governance and military rule, I saw little possibility of advancing the kind of change that was so necessary to Ghana’s- and Africa’s- progress. Today, forty years later, as a new generation is rebelling against this conspiracy of corrupt rule across the continent, I recognize that frustration and the power of such ideals in our own feelings from a generation ago.” This comment is telling and reveals a part of him which possibly pushed him into public service, to begin with.
The book moves back and forth easily between the various crises that have defined his career: Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq and of course 9/11. The tone is conversational and the prose flows well. His account also gives insider information on such key aspects as the development of Peacekeeping as an idea and how the UN came to embrace this notion. The 1990s’ brought a new optimism, an idealist view of how the international community would stand behind the oppressed and the weak. Speaking of this growth, he says :” Between 1987 and 1992, most operations had involved one hundred observers or fewer missions involving littler risk to peacekeepers. By early 1994, there would be a total of eighty thousand peacekeeping forces deployed in 17 operations worldwide.” This was by no means a triumphalism of the west- as the missions in Rwanda, Somalia quickly deteriorated and the UN couldn’t do much to prevent the genocide, violence in these regions. Annan acknowledges that Rwanda and Bosnia were the two biggest failures until that time and to rectify that he commissioned two reports to investigate why the UN failed in its duties. What followed was the Brahimi Report in 2000, which sought to correct several of the impediments that stood in the way of the UN doing its job effectively.
Responsibility to Protect ( RTP) is a legacy that Kofi Annan left behind. It is a powerful statement and a legacy that reflects his commitment to upholding the high moral principles of protecting the vulnerable and weak in the face of oppression. It is what came out of his experiences in the abovementioned conflicts. This called for re-imagining the notion of state sovereignty, one of the holy-grails in International Relations. His quote on this is telling:” We needed to convince the broader global community that sovereignty had to be understood as contingent and conditional on states’ taking responsibility for the security of their own people’s human rights.”(pg84). The struggle within the organization and also the cultural shift is captured in his quote:” What do you do when people are starving, dying, not because there is drought, but because people, a group of men, are stopping them from getting the food…what do you to? Sit? Negotiate? Or what? .”
The chapter on Kosovo, East Timor and Darfur is particularly striking in its focus on how mass violence was committed by the respective states against their own people and how at times, the world just stood by and watched these atrocities. Kosovo was the litmus test for UN’s credibility. The call for action to stop violence against ethnic Albanians, the Security Council resolution 1199, which demanded the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo and the subsequent NATO airstrikes, which ultimately had a decisive impact on how this situation ended. The East Timor’s case is particularly striking also because of the manner in which Annan was directly involved and this, one can argue, saved thousands of lives and also lead to the country eventually being recognized as a sovereign nation, following a popular referendum in 1999, which was mediated by the UN.
Darfur in Sudan presented another set of challenges and it seems that this tested his skills of negotiation, deal-making and diplomacy. The crisis in 2004, which was precipitated by the Sudanese government’s support of Janjaweed militia against the South had reached a tipping point. The crisis, which claimed over half a million lives has lead to an international campaign against Sudanese president Omar Bashar and also the formation of a new country, South Sudan.
By no means was his work easy or without risks. Annan mentions the many personal clashes with world-leaders, over how a problem should be approached, issues of parochial national interests coming in the way of reaching a just solution to a conflict and at times, pure ego being the deal-breaker. The struggle about defining the situation in Darfur as a genocide or not, involving the British, Americans and the UN itself is quite striking. This had enormous implications in how this situation was resolved and dealt with in the form of a UN mission sent in 2007.
United Nations and its role in today’s world
As the world becomes increasingly connected, both through movement of people as well as ideas, the challenges of governance increase. The role of the Secretary General itself is quite unique and Annan offers a sneak-peak into the running of an organization of $ 10 billion annual budget, and one invested with the hopes, aspirations of the entire world. The work requires tremendous tenacity, tact, energy as well as coordination skills. The 2001 Nobel Peace Prize to Annan and the UN was a confidence booster and legitimated his approach to running the organization.
While the post-WWII framework still operates in the form of permanent five of the Security Council, his 2003 call for reform aimed to expand the membership of permanent members; though this has not taken any concrete shape yet. His frustration of dealing with leaders in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is apparent, when he points out that both Arafat and Ariel Sharon were problematic people to deal with. This seems to be the classic position of being stuck between a rock and a hard place, and shows partly why the UN has not been very effective in playing a key role in this conflict, so far. The UN has been denied a proper role in the conflict and Annan admits it as being limiting and not very effective.
Middle East, MDGs and the future of our planet
Speaking of his diplomatic initiatives to redefine security, as security from hunger, disease and poverty; towards accomplishment of the Millennium Development Goals ( MDGs), Annan paints an interesting picture of his struggles with African leaders like Mugabe, who refused to acknowledge the use of condoms in the strategy to prevent the spread of AIDS. He captures this shifting in priorities quite well, when he says:” I spent most of my tenure as secretary-general in an international environment obsessed with the potential peril of weapons of mass destruction. But in HIV/AIDS, which never received anything like the same level of attention, we had a true WMD- and one that was actively unleashing itself in the world.” His lament about countries prioritizing violence over peace is clear when he says:” Member states willed the ends but rarely the means. The world, as ever, was happy to invest in the instruments of violence, but not the resources for peace.”
Despite the violence, chaos and destruction that has characterized the Arab Spring, Annan remains optimistic and believes that the demands for better governance that are being made are legitimate and reflect the aspirations of the younger generation.
While the book captures the career and life of Kofi Annan through the lens of a few events, it could have been organized better. Though it moves back and forth and captures the tension between the key people, at key moments in history; I believe the story could have been told in a more detailed manner. Despite its short-comings and skimming over certain key global events, the book is a fascinating read and a must-read for any student of International development or International Affairs.
Annan Kofi, Mousavizadeh Nader. Interventions – A life in War and Peace, The Penguin Press, 2012. Hardcover. $21.42 on Amazon.com