FT INTERVIEW WITH KOFI ANNAN, FORMER UN SECRETARY GENERAL
Alec Russell: What about the bigger issue of the intervention? There are all sorts of historical parallels one can come up with. One analogy is, of course, 1991 after Iraqis had been pushed out of Kuwait and then the world’s policymakers decided not to intervene to stop Saddam putting down the Shiite uprising. Should the policymakers have done the same thing, should they have hardened their hearts this time?The United Nations imposed arms embargo on Yugoslavia, preventing Bosniak people from defending themselves against heavily-armed Serbs. Here are excerpts from the interview with former U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, relating to Bosnia (Link to: FULL INTERVIEW)
Kofi Annan: I think the world has moved on. You’re right to start with 1991 but one would also need to look at Srebrenica and Rwanda and the repetition of the phrase “never again,” or “we will defend the helpless”. And there was a situation where Gaddafi himself, he brought it on himself with some of the statements he was making about being “merciless” and “blood will flow” and all that. When a leader makes that sort of statement and you see him approaching populated areas with tanks and military gear and equipment, an international community that had been talking tough and talking of a no-fly zone and rushing to establish a no-fly zone would have had a lot to answer for if they had not intervened to protect the population.
The question is where you draw the line. Was every action taken by the coalition designed to protect helpless civilians or, in some cases, to support the weak, rebellious army? And how far do you go? And does it fit with the [UN] Security Council resolution and the mandate? And we should remember that it wasn’t a unanimous decision and some pretty important countries abstained. So you start with a divided Council, which makes it even more important that those in action respect the mandate otherwise the divisions widen. And the Council can get paralysed on future decisions on Libya.
...Alec Russell: The first time you were caught up in an intense debate over intervention was in the former Yugoslavia. Looking back now, some would say that, inadvertently, the UN ended up being pro-Serb. What do you think?
Kofi Annan: I think that would be rather harsh and unfair but I could also see why people would think that way. Generals often find a way of dealing with generals on the officer-to-officer level. In the hierarchy of the military and with the almost similar structure and similar language, they find a way of dealing with each other. So you had a situation where, in Yugoslavia at that time, I think you’ll find that most of the generals were either Serbs or Croats.
In terms of numbers, I think there were not many Bosniaks in the army... The time came when the UN and the international community discovered the type of generals they were dealing with but it took a while.
And, of course, you also had this attitude in peacekeeping that you have to be neutral but neutrality, in some of these situations, is a tough call for the weaker ones. I think they weren’t neutral in the sense of not making any judgments and I think they did move to support the Bosniaks, which also brought on to them the wrath of the Serbs. But it’s a delicate point. You remember Michael Rose’s comment was, I don’t want to cross a Mogadishu line. He was basically saying that sometimes when you take a tough action against one side in the conflict, they see you as part of the conflict and they attack you.
This is what happened in Mogadishu, so by not crossing the Mogadishu line, he didn’t want to provoke attacks against his men. I don’t think it’s fair to say the UN was pro-Serb. But the rules of the game were such that one could interpret it that way because, as I said, if you are neutral in a situation where one side is patently being mistreated, the conclusion is that you’re siding with this wrong.
Alec Russell: You say it took a while. It took too long, didn’t it?
Kofi Annan: Yes, I would say that it took too long but I think you also have to understand that the UN doesn’t work in a vacuum. I have often said that we have two UNs; the UN that is a Secretariat, that implements the mandates handed over to it by the General Assembly and the Security Council, and the UN that is the member states who sit in the Council, take the decisions, hand over the mandates, or take decisions in the General Assembly.
In a situation like Bosnia, where the troops on the ground are from the member states, the risks they are allowed to take are determined by the member states, to the extent that in some situations some governments will tell you locations where they don’t want their troops deployed because they say it’s considered dangerous. And, in some situations, they are not even going to give you the troops and then allow them to come to the theatre.
And when Michael Rose says, “I don’t want to cross a Mogadishu line” he wasn’t talking only for Michael or the British government, or the British army for that matter. Almost all the governments with troops on the ground at that time agreed with him. The press may not have agreed, the Bosniaks may not have agreed, but those whose men were taking risks [did]. The Americans, after a while, did not agree but they didn’t have men on the ground, as we were discussing the other day.
Alec Russell: So your hands were tied. Is that what happens to you?
Kofi Annan: Absolutely. Your hands are tied, not only... let me give you an example. The Canadians were in Srebrenica and were very keen to get out. And we looked for alternatives. It was extremely difficult to get any government to agree. The Dutch accepted it and you know what happened.
Alec Russell: You drew up, published, a report which was very clear, open and self-critical of your own department and used the sentence, “the management failed to adapt the mandates to the reality on the ground”. When you say the management, were you thinking of yourself? Does that also apply to you?
Kofi Annan: It applies to me and [unclear] to us... For the last assessment, I was on the ground and so, of course, by then most of the damage had been done. And I think sometimes we have to look some of these failures in the face because that’s also the only way you can learn lessons.
Alec Russell: When you look back, is there something you would have done differently when you were in headquarters?
Kofi Annan: When we look at, for example, when we were asked to establish the safe havens, we gave them a report which indicated that the safe havens have to be wide enough – and I don’t recall; you may want to check – I think we said 36 miles in diameter or something, so that people there can lead a normal life and are not sort of restricted into certain areas, and that we would need... I think it was about 37,000 troops to establish a secure and safe area that was wide enough. And guess how many the Council gave us? Only 7,600.
We needed troops so badly that we brought Kenyan troops to Yugoslavia, who did not have the equipment so we had to bring them in and try and train them in the equipment. The Austrians offered to train them and at the last minute they said their laws did not allow [the training] so they were trained on the equipment in Slovakia and then introduced into the theatre, which took a considerable time. These are the difficulties, both operational and the question of political will, which is sometimes difficult to explain to the public.
But obviously, we made mistakes and there probably are situations where perhaps we could have been more assertive. The issue is, when you talk to the commanders, there’s always this feeling that yes, I can take a strong stand today but if they come with reinforcements tomorrow, what do I do, how I protect the men and what do you suggest? This is always the dilemma they throw at you.
... Alec Russell: On a personal level, when you look back over your tenure, is that the one thing that you might have done differently?
Kofi Annan: Yes. I think Rwanda was painful. I’d say, both Rwanda and Srebrenica. The question of what I could have done differently; I often wonder and you raise the question indirectly. If one had shouted from the rooftops to say that the situation in Rwanda is so desperate, thousands may be killed – at that time we really had no idea of numbers – would it have made a difference? Probably it was worth a try but at that time, as I said, those statements were reserved for the Secretary-General, not for his underlings. They were the Secretary-General’s but maybe one should have shouted and then publicly challenged states to do something.
They may not have, but at least one would have placed the issue openly and firmly on the table. Nobody believes the governments [who] say they don’t know but some say they didn’t know that this was coming. They even had more information that they got from their embassies and staff there. They were much more plugged-in and had more assets on the ground but say they didn’t know. The question is, what did they do when they found out? They sent planes to evacuate their nationals whilst the killing continued. You see? And they refused to send in reinforcements even through the Council. So it was a policy issue, it was not a question of lack of knowledge.
We in the Secretariat made mistakes in the sense that maybe we should have shouted loudly about this killing but, of course, you don’t also function that way. You give the council a synthesis of assessment, not that I got this cable from the general today. So that’s in private consultations you can tell the Council.
...Alec Russell: What about speaking out over Bosnia?
Kofi Annan: The most courageous governments were the ones who had no troops on the ground; those who had troops on the ground didn’t want to take any risks. We saw UN soldiers, peacekeepers, taken hostage: the French, in my own discussions with my good friend Jacques Chirac, didn’t want to expose their troops. He said, in fact, they were prepared to put in more soldiers rather than risk using air power that may complicate the situation.
Alec Russell: Malcolm Rifkind [the former British foreign secretary] wrote an article in The Times recently, giving an implicit side-swipe at the UN.
Kofi Annan: That’s amazing. They are already reinventing history, but then they were tough times. And of course, I think it was Brian Urquhart who first used the term – said the way we run peacekeeping operations is like telling the mayor: we know you need a fire-house, but we’ll build you one when the fire occurs. It’s only when a conflict has exploded that we go around looking for troops and he had felt if there was a stand-in UN army, which we both know there is not going to be, it would be much more sensible so that he could move very quickly, rather than... when the fire is raging.
Alec Russell: So you weren’t tempted to speak out then?
Kofi Annan: There was a UN ethos and also, when you are in that situation and you’re trying to hold the countries and the fragile situation together with troops – men and women who are not yours, that you have borrowed, and sometimes with conditions that you are fighting with the governments internally, to change… If you go and blame them publicly, you compound the problem. It wasn’t even a question of cowardice or that it was a practical situation of: would it help or would it make the situation worse?
The press will say that if people had spoken out it would have given us more ammunition to go after the governments and push them to do this… But when I look at Iraq, the press were very complacent. It’s only when Bush began weakening that they spoke out.
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