Kofi Annan has nothing to apologise for

There is a big problem with the United Nations, says Jonathan Powell.

Kofi Annan.
Kofi Annan. Photograph: Getty Images

Interventions: a Life in War and Peace
Kofi Annan
Allen Lane, 400pp, £25

There is a big problem with the United Nations. The end of the cold war gave rise to great hopes that it would finally be unshackled and could at last become the body for international action and legitimacy that its founding fathers had intended in 1945. There were a few initial successes, such as the first Gulf war and the peace processes in El Salvador and Guatemala, made possible by the disappearance of the zero-sum game between the US and the USSR. Yet the following two decades have largely been a disappointment. Instead of leading, the UN has too often become an instrument for inaction.

Tony Blair warned of the dangers in his Chicago speech in 1999 in the context of the war in Kosovo and proposed a series of reforms. Those reforms have not happened, despite Kofi Annan’s best efforts as secretary general. As long as the Security Council continues to represent the balance of power as it was in 1950 rather than now, as long as the US uses its veto to prevent the UN playing a role in the Middle East and as long as Russia and China use the veto to prevent it playing a role anywhere else, it is condemned to be a bystander.

You would think, from reading Annan’s unnecessarily defensive autobiography, that he felt the need to justify himself for the tragedies that befell the world during his time at the helm of the UN. But they were not his fault, nor the fault of the UN as an organisation. The blame lay squarely with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the P5).

The most interesting section is the one that gives the book its title, “Interventions”. Annan gives a passionate account of his efforts to persuade the international community to embrace a new readiness to intervene militarily on humanitarian grounds and of the unfortunately named doctrine of “R2P”, or “responsibility to protect”. Annan’s determination to overturn the old Westphalian rules of nonintervention was born of his experience of working in the UN peacekeeping department in the 1990s, as it stood by while 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in Rwanda in just 100 days, more than 100,000 were slaughtered in Bosnia and untold misery inflicted on Somalia after the “Black Hawk down” episode and the subsequent withdrawal of the international community.

The Rwandans had learned from what happened in Somalia that they could carry out genocide without the risk of international intervention. Annan laments “the international community’s complicity with evil” and writes that he sought to “chart a course that combined a clear defence of the primacy of the Security Council in matters of peace and security, with an equally clear recognition that the UN was never intended as a pacifist organisation and there were times when force was not only necessary but legitimate”.

Implementing this good intention was not so easy. The first challenge was Kosovo and it was not possible to get the UN Security Council to agree on military intervention. The Russians threatened a veto, so driving Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo was left to Nato rather than the UN. The book’s account of how this happened is slightly bizarre. It makes no reference to the deployment of American and British ground troops, nor to the role played by Blair. Indeed, the treatment of Blair in the book is altogether odd. It begins with a chapter that includes an account of the “Yo, Blair” conversation between him and George W Bush and a condemnation of his role in the disastrous Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 2006. Although Annan is a consummate diplomat, you can easily tell from the book who he likes and who he doesn’t: friends are introduced with adjectives such as “skilled and resourceful” or “kind and considerate”; those he is less keen on get no adjectives at all.

The next intervention, in Sierra Leone, was carried out by British troops rather than the UN. The operation had to be undertaken because of the failure of the UN to impose order. The attacks of 11 September 2001 appeared to change everything and the Security Council unanimously endorsed intervention in Afghanistan. It was, however, left to Nato forces to fight the military campaign and to impose the peace.

Then we come to the intervention in Iraq. Blair persuaded the US administration to pursue the UN route in the hope of building an international consensus for action and secured a first resolution but failed to get a second. The US came to see the UN as an obstacle to action and invaded with a voluntary coalition instead. Annan opposed the war and repeats here his view that it was illegal. He suggests the alternative was to wait and to continue with inspections but he illustrates the crux of the problem inadvertently when he writes that Saddam Hussein “clearly had no intention of ever coming into full and verifiable compliance” with UN resolutions. As we now know, Saddam was afraid that if he ever revealed he no longer had weapons of mass destruction, he would be vulnerable to attack by Iran and Israel. If this was the case, then no amount of waiting and no amount of new inspections would have ever solved the problem and, as Annan acknowledges, sanctions were not working and were only succeeding in hurting the innocent population. So for one committed to intervention, it is easier to oppose what happened in Iraq than to suggest a viable alternative.

The conundrum of when to intervene didn’t disappear with Iraq. With Libya, the west was unable to secure a UN resolution for intervention and drove Russia into a fury by massively – and rightly – bending the mandate it did get to allow it to take action. And now there is the situation in Syria, where Annan in retirement bravely had a go at “mission impossible”, as he describes it, and where, once the US elections are over, the question will arise again: to intervene or not to intervene in the face of Russian and Chinese vetoes? Is the international community going to stand by while hundreds of thousands die, as in Rwanda and Bosnia, or are we going to intervene and risk the chaos that followed previous interventions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan?

I don’t think Annan has anything to apologise for. He was and is a good man. He was trying his best. He is a remarkably skilled mediator and has some real triumphs to be proud of – the independence of East Timor and the settlement in Kenya after he left the UN. The problem is not with a man but with the international community. Unless we reform the UN, it will suffer the same fate of irrelevance as the League of Nations. As Annan points out, unless the Security Council is restructured to include India, Brazil, Japan, Germany and the other new great powers, then influence and relevance will bleed away to new organisations where they are represented, such as the G20. The power of the veto in the hands of five countries needs to be abolished. And we need a strong secretary general with an independent power of initiative.

Will reform happen? Not if the P5 continue to think only about their narrow, short-term self interest or unless another cataclysmic conflict like the Second World War forces change. This book makes clear that a good man is not enough. Unless we have a strong institution as well, then we will never enjoy global security, stability, democracy and respect for human rights.

Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2007. He is CEO of Inter Mediate.