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Realpolitik’s globetrotter

J.P. O’Malley interviews Kofi Annan 


I’m sitting in luxury on the ninth floor of the Dorchester Hotel, overlooking trees above the gates of Hyde Park. The autumnal sunshine dapples the buses that jostle their way down Park Lane and into Mayfair. Kofi Annan, the most successful recent UN head and probably the world’s most famous diplomat, is here to talk about his new book ‘Interventions: A Life in War and Peace’.

The memoir speaks candidly about the vicissitudes of a career trying to persuade governments around the globe to bring about peace. It also points out how the UN, on occasion, failed to protect the rights of “the peoples”, as laid out in the original charter of the organisation, written in 1945.

In conversation, Annan speaks with all the formality you would expect from a man who has given 50 years of his life to diplomacy. He looks considerably younger than his 74 years. Maybe it’s his bespoke attire. Or it could be his affable smile, which melds charisma and persuasiveness.

Annan joined the United Nations in 1962, serving as secretary general from 1997 to 2006. It was in Ghana where his life as the World’s pragmatist began. Born in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region, in 1938, Annan was the son of a Ghanaian executive, who ran a European trading company. As a young man, he was a student in the ‘independence class’ of 1957, at his boarding school, Mfantsipim, in the city of Cape Coast. It was an era where one could witness how politics had a meaning that transcended tribe or ideology, says Annan.

“ As a teenager, to see this struggle for independence taking place in Ghana was very powerful. I grew up with a sense that fundamental change was possible. For example, to watch the police commissioner – who was an Englishman – become a Ghanaian, or the Prime Minister become a Ghanaian, gave me great optimism and hope”.

“I saw that things can change, and had a sense that I could help change things, because I had seen it happen at such an early age”, he says.

Annan’s new book describes how interventionism was a practice that defined UN peacekeeping troops after 1989. Before this the organisation had been in deadlock for 40 years, due to the paranoid Cold War rivalry of its two most powerful members: the United States and the Soviet Union. However, as the politics of the post-Cold War era thawed rapidly, the UN quickly found itself in a situation it was not equipped for, says Annan.

“Until the end of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Security Council was divided. The Cold War meant it wasn’t easy for the Council to agree on what conflicts they should intervene in”.

“In most cases they had only intervened in inter-country conflicts, where the parties came to agreements, and invited the UN to come and monitor. So they were fairly stable environments. After the early 1990s, we got involved in various internal situations, Somalia and Rwanda being two. That required a different type of skill – one that tested the organisation: to defend some of the civilian populations in the vicinity. That was really a qualitative and dramatic change to UN operations”, says Annan.

This unexpected transition meant Annan suddenly found himself in 1994 – as head of UN peacekeeping – in a position where he could do nothing, as an ethnic conflict erupted in Rwanda between Tutsi and Hutu tribes. Over a three-month period, he pleaded with world leaders to intervene in the genocide, where 800,000 people were massacred. This figure amounts to nearly three quarters of the entire Tutsi population, who were hacked to death with machetes, mostly by Hutu civilians.

After the previous events of “Black Hawk Down” – where two helicopters were shot down and eighteen U.S soldiers killed by a mob of rebels a year earlier in Mogadishu, Somalia, the Clinton Administration felt deploying more peacekeeping troops to a similar region would not benefit the Americans’ national interest. Other countries came to the same view. Annan describes this process as devastating.

“It was a very painful experience for me, but we have to understand the context. We were trying to cope with Rwanda soon after the collapse of the UN operations in Somalia, where US troops had been killed, and dragged through the streets. These countries had become risk-averse after Somalia”.

Nearly a decade later, Annan found himself again attempting to negotiate another ethnic conflict in Africa: this time in the Darfur region in western Sudan. In 2003, UN senior staff had begun to issue public warnings about an army of tribal fighters from the Arab Baggara tribes – known as the Janjaweed. These Arab militiamen – who were supplied with weapons by the Sudanese army – raped and killed; and burned down thousands of village homes, displacing hundreds of thousands.


Annan paid a personal visit to the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, in July 2004, to ask him to intervene. The meeting ended with Bashir promising to disarm the Janjaweed, and to bring justice to those accused of human-rights violations. Nothing happened. In a conflict where 300,000 had allegedly been massacred, many in the international community began to ask the same question: should Darfur be recognised as genocide?

In July 2004, the United States Congress voted that it was.

Annan maintains that he was given ample evidence, which confirmed that however barbaric these crimes were, technically, they could not be classed as genocide.

“The UN sent in a commission to Darfur, headed by Antonio Cassese, who was a prominent Italian judge, and an expert on war crimes. They came up with a report, confirming there was systematic abuse of human rights, and to some extent, crimes against humanity. However, they could not determine from their study that it was genocide”, says Annan.

“That would entail a judicial determination, so the commission stopped short of calling it genocide. This was a report that went to the Security Council. On the basis of that report the Security Council referred the Bashir case to the International Criminal Court. Having accepted their report, I couldn’t then say it was genocide. I had to accept Cassese’s view.

“While the Americans called Darfur genocide, they didn’t change their policy. They declared it genocide and did nothing”, he adds.

As secretary general, Annan spent a considerable amount of time trying to bring peace to the Middle East. He paid his first trip to Israel in 1998, determined to improve relations between the UN and the Jewish state.

To begin with, Annan called for normalisation of Israel’s status within the organisation, condemning the anti-Semitism of the 1975 resolution (which the organisation rescinded in 1991). He did so, he says, because the UN’s role in the Middle East peace process had become non-existent.

“For some time, the secretary general had not been at the table of negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. When I got involved, I wanted to change that”, he says.

In Annan’s view, the last convincing attempt at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from all sides of the negotiating table, ended more than a decade ago, in Southern Egypt.

“It was in Sharm el-Sheikh, in October 2000, [three months] before President Clinton left office,” he says. “It was at this meeting that myself, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, King Abdullah II of Jordan and others tried to resolve the peace process. We couldn’t do it, but I think that was the last real general effort”.

By December 2000, negotiations had stalled, and Clinton, desperate to be remembered as the president who achieved peace in the Middle East, offered Israelis and Palestinians a last-minute solution.

The so-called Clinton Parameters proposed a Palestinian state on 96 per cent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, as well as compromises on Jerusalem, refugees and other central issues. In the years since, both Clinton and Israel have claimed that Mubarak accepted the terms, and that responsibility for the talks’ failure – just as the region was spiralling into the second intifada – lay with Arafat.

In his book, Annan paints a more complicated picture, arguing that both Mubarak and Arafat were open to a deal, but that each side needed additional time to address opposition from within their own camps. The Palestinian leader did indeed deserve part of the blame, but Israel wasn’t without fault, Annan says.

“Sure, there were problems on Arafat’s side, but there were problems on the Israeli side, too”, Annan says. “The role of the mediator is to bridge their differences. Both sides had problems in this conflict, but often the Americans tended to forget the problems on the Israeli side, and finger-pointed to the Palestinians and Arafat”.

The US tendency to side with Israel would again prove an obstacle, Annan says, as he pursued the so-called ‘road map for peace’ half a decade later.

At every stage of the negotiations, Annan says, he felt the US was unwilling to fully co-operate with its nominal partners – the UN, EU and Russia.

“The road map wasn’t implemented in the way that we had expected”, he recalls. “Even though we were a Quartet, the US held more control than the rest, and where the US did not lead, it was extremely difficult for the Quartet to move forward”.

When Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, the US and the EU – the Quartet’s major funders, said they would not work with the organisation, which both classify it as a terrorist group. Annan believes this was a mistake: that governments, whether they like it or not, must eventually talk to terrorists if they want to end violence.

“You come to realise terrorists are a reality” he says, using language unlikely to endear him to US or British conservatives for example. “You have to deal with them to bring peace. We have seen this in Northern Ireland and in other places. In the end, you have to talk. The same thing is going to have to happen in Syria”.

Annan is well-positioned to know. In August, Annan resigned as the joint special envoy of the UN and Arab League to Syria, following just five months in the role. He blames the mission’s failure and the violence that continues to roil Syria on the lack of agreement between the five permanent members of the Security Council.

“I resigned because of the divisions at the international level”, he claims, “but you should see my resignation as supporting the Syrian people. I wanted the world, and the member states, to know that the way we were going about the issue of the divisions was not going to help the Syrians or indeed the region”.

Predictably, Annan unfurls his comsummate diplomacy in describing the abilities of Lakhdar Brahimi, his replacement in the role. But he does not sound optimistic.

“He is a very good and able negotiator” Annan says. “I hope he will get the sustained, united support that I did not get. It is that united effort, along with pressure on the parties, which will make a difference. But now we are heading towards the abyss, unfortunately”.

During half a century serving the UN, Annan shook the hands of many of the world’s most loathsome tyrants at the UN headquarters in New York and in far flung troubled zones. Negotiating with these men, he says, is living realpolitik.

But how comfortable did he ever become, sipping tea in a room with Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Omar al-Bashir, or Saddam Hussein and did utilitarian pragmatism overcome contempt?

“Whether we like it or not they exist. They often have power and influence over their people. How do you get them to change ⎯or to do what the international community wants them to do⎯ by not engaging them? And though the international community may go in with force, it must also make sure force will not cause more harm than already exists. I was a diplomat, not an army general with a whole brigade behind me”, says Annan.