Alec Russell interviewed former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan over five hours in Geneva (late April 2011) and Dar es Salaam (early April). Here is the full transcript.
Mediation and Libya
Alec Russell: Do you sometimes turn down overtures to mediate?
Kofi Annan: You need to be careful not to over-reach and also assess the capacity you have to work with. In Kenya, initially, I started by advising… and then I went in and, as you know, couldn’t leave for six weeks, which really wreaked havoc with my programme for the whole year. But at least I was able to make some contribution.
Sometimes I offer advice or suggest who else can deal with it and, in some situations, deal directly with it. And in Cote d’Ivoire, we [the Elders] had hoped to go in early before things exploded. We were going to go in and talk to the two young men and remind them, the two leaders, that Ivory Coast is bigger than them.
AR: Would you consider getting involved in Libya?
KA: It depends. There are lots of questions which have to be answered. Sometimes when people approach you and say, do this, there are lots of questions. I have been in touch with some of the governments engaged, both western and Middle Eastern governments, to really make an assessment of how they see the situation and what will be required because first of all the coalition itself has to decide how it wants to proceed, which direction it wants to go, because you have several possibilities.
Some may seek a victory. Victory in this situation would mean you have to really win completely, the sort of situation which led to Saddam being found in a hole. And I’m not sure that’s likely to be the situation in Libya. Therefore you have to seek a political way out because you are working yourself to a stalemate that could last for a long time and be messy.
So which way do you go? Are they prepared to talk, to find a way out for Gaddafi? And then, of course, you have the council, the Libyan opposition council whose approach, I’m sure, would be, he has to go. And in fact, their approach would be to try and put pressure on the coalition that you can’t come and bomb and do all this - you know the kind of man he is - and leave us here with him. So you’re going to have rather difficult negotiation discussions with the transitional council itself.
And so the coalition and the transitional council have to get their act together or get into the same place before they can take on Gaddafi. I’m sure Gaddafi has difficulties on his side.
AR: You negotiated with Gaddafi over the years. How would you assess him now?
KA: He came out of the cold and probably felt he had managed a difficult situation very well. He went to European capitals. European heads of government and heads of state flew down to see him. He probably felt he’d re-established and reinstated himself as a member of the international community. And then, of course, this happens. He’ll probably wonder if indeed there has been that much progress in his relations with them. My sense is that he’ll become much more suspicious today and, unless he’s really backed into a corner, will be extremely difficult to negotiate with.
AR: 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?
KA: 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.
AR: Is there implicit hypocrisy that there is intervention in Libya but not Ivory Coast where an awful conflict is raging?
KA: Yes. The timing of this [Libyan] initiative is very difficult and awkward. Even before you go to Ivory Coast, questions are going to be put as to whether, if there were to be a similar situation where civilians are at risk in some of the other countries, whether Syria or Yemen, what should the international community do? Should they consider going in? And then, of course, you have Ivory Coast where you have, in a way, international presence already on the ground, you have UN forces on the ground. They don’t have the adequate numbers to do what they probably would like to do.
AR: So we have to weigh up each situation separately and coolly?
KA: Coolly, and be coldly realistic as to whether the action or the initiative we are contemplating would help or make matters worse.
AR: You seemed to imply, from your earlier remarks, though, that you were in favour of the Libyan intervention.
KA: I’m in favour of the efforts that were made to protect the people. You see, the problem, the argument the Libyan intervention will lead to, is they quoted the “responsibility to protect” but it’s a graduation. You sort of go through a whole series of events and as a last resort you use force; political pressure, sanctions and others.
Of course, one could claim that we were beyond that, that the way events were moving so fast, you couldn’t influence a situation by applying political or diplomatic pressure, imposing sanctions, and that more effective measures had to be used, and this is the argument that has been made.
And I think the whole world saw that time was on the move with the people in Benghazi and they felt that action was taken to stop the tanks before they got to Benghazi and did lots of damage. I’m sure everyone will support that, or most people will support it. I can say most people will support that.
The following remarks on Libya were made in an interview conducted in Geneva during the last week of April 2011.
AR: Are you still being contacted from Tripoli and urged to get involved?
KA: It’s gone quiet there. Also I haven’t called them because I’m not sure how the actors are playing it, because I don’t think it’s gone cold or dead, but… you need to know what the coalition wants to do, what the transition council wants to do, and right now, I think they have problems amongst themselves in the sense that the coalition is not united as to approach.
And, as I suspected, the rebels will not be ready to talk to Gaddafi. They want Nato to help remove him, and of course, I think eventually probably he will have to go, but you cannot put it upfront the way people are saying: Gaddafi must go. A future Libya without Gaddafi must be part of the negotiations and handled properly. It should be part of the agenda, and this mantra of Sarkozy, Cameron, Gaddafi is one… Obama saying Gaddafi must go. Putting it upfront like that… it’s not very helpful.
But, on the other hand, I see their problem. If, at the end of the day, he stays… how do you explain to the population – both the Libyan and the western populations – that you went through all of this and you leave them with Gaddafi? But on the other hand, I think they were right, as I have said, to get rid of the air defence systems. Most people forget that even in Iraq, by the time the air and no-fly zone was established, the air defence system had been removed through the first Gulf war. All of them had been neutralised.
They were right to stop the guns and the tanks from getting to Benghazi. The problem they have now is the sense that they’ve crossed a line and are now part of the civil war and fighting on one side of the civil war.
But here, I will tell you… you will find this interesting, because I said this to Samantha Powers [the academic and liberal interventionist in the White House] and she said: “How can one say a civil war? One side is so weak. The other side is so powerful.” I just listened. I kept saying, but who told you in civil war, the sides have to be evenly matched? It never starts like that. But it is a civil war, and they are now perceived as having been sucked in, and where does it stop? How far… how much deeper do you get in? And if it drags on, how patient will the population be and the parliaments be? This is a problem.
AR: Is the Arab spring a 1989 moment or will many of these revolutions be crushed?
KA: The Arab spring reminds me a bit of the decolonisation process where one country gets independence and everybody else wants it. How about us, when do we get it, when do we make our move? And you have a situation where someone has been in power for decades, where the integrity of elections, democracy and security have really not been debated or discussed and most people suspect that elections are rigged and that the democratic rotation that elections are supposed to ensure doesn’t really happen. And when this goes on for a while you are sitting on a powder keg.
My own advice to people who would be in office for two or three terms is that they must accept democratic rotation. Ideally not put themselves up for re-election and allow the system to work. It is extreme arrogance for one to think he…and it’s usually he, is the only one who can govern his country and nobody else can do it. We’re all human. After 10, 15 years you get tired, you run out of steam and ideas, you have to give a chance to somebody else. And whether you yourself are inclined to stay on, all those around you are pushing you to stay on for what they will gain. One has to have the strength of character to say the time has come to move on…unless you are a king.
AR: There is, of course, inevitably a concern in the west about the Arab uprisings. This is in effect: “Uh oh, what if the change brings with it destructive forces?
KA: I think that concern is not entirely misplaced because revolution by its nature can not be overly programmed or directed. There are so many forces at work that you don’t know where and how it all ends. But what is encouraging about what has happened, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, was that it was home-grown. It was a sort of force from the people, demanding change, demanding dignity, demanding freedom and democracy.
But the point you make is right. Depending on how the change is managed, it can lead to consequences that one may not have anticipated or wished for. Change is a process which has to be managed. If it’s managed and managed well in the interest of the nation and the people, the likelihood is that it will end well.
The risk you run is in these situations is that those with advantage are the organised. The young and dynamic and idealistic people in the square do not have the chance to organise themselves politically, to be able to follow through their dreams in six months time, to play an effective role in the future.
And so as we move beyond the initial phase they really have to find a way, because in Egypt, political parties were not encouraged. I saw this, for example, with my good friend Mohamed ElBaradei, who went in looking for change. But then he discovered how difficult it was to form a political party, he couldn’t raise funds….. These are some of the odds.
It takes lots of energy, persistence, for them to stick with it. And not only stick with it, but they need resources, they need determined leadership to be able to go all the way, before the revolution is hijacked by the organised who may not necessarily share their dreams.
Bosnia and Rwanda
AR: 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?
KA: 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.
AR: You say it took a while. It took too long, didn’t it?
KA: 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.
AR: So your hands were tied. Is that what happens to you?
KA: 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.
AR: 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?
KA: 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.
AR: When you look back, is there something you would have done differently when you were in headquarters?
KA: 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.
AR: It was a very different scenario, of course, a couple of years later in Rwanda, where it wasn’t an issue of arms, with big forces, but militia with machetes. In particular, there was that memo in which [it was said], “the overriding consideration would be avoiding a situation that might lead to the use of force”. What do you think of that now?
KA: I think you need to step back a bit. First of all, we had a very small force and by the way - I don’t want to make an issue of it - as head of the department, all cables went out in my name. As I’ve said, it wasn’t done by me although I take responsibility for it.
When that message went out, “avoid the use of force”, one has to put it in context, to know the context in the sense of what happened in Somalia. In a way, I often say that for all of us, Rwanda, in a way, became a victim of Somalia. Rwanda exploded when we were withdrawing from Somalia and why were we withdrawing from Somalia? Because a plane had been shot down and Americans killed and their bodies dragged through the street, and a 38,000-peacekeeper operation [had] disintegrated.
And, if a couple of months later you are sitting in Rwanda and you get a recommendation that would lead to the use of force and the consequential event where everyone withdraws… When the US left [Somalia], all the western countries withdrew and that was the beginning of the end of this operation. So, at the department, we were very conscious about not taking similar risks in Rwanda and I think that’s why that cable went.
And in fact, not long after that, 10 Belgian soldiers were killed and the Belgians withdrew. The Belgians withdrew, the Sri Lankans were given instructions to protect only themselves. So you were left with half a battalion from Ghana of about, I think, 250 men in that sea of killing. And the question of increasing the forces; the Council wouldn’t accept it. The Council rejected it.
Bill Clinton has himself gone to Kigali airport to regret it and say, that was a big mistake. And so, as I say, there were a series of decisions which, in my judgment, were a result of what had happened months before. For the US were not going to repeat Somalia. And there was a time when nobody wanted to hear the word Somalia uttered because of what it meant. For peacekeepers, one had to be very careful not to get a couple of peacekeepers killed, and then the operation unravels.
So when a commander comes and says, I want to take this risk, it’s not unreasonable for one to say, be careful. In fact, when the US withdrew their troops from Somalia, I recall making a comment that [in] the way the peacekeepers had been withdrawn from Somalia, the impression had been given that the easiest way to unravel a peacekeeping operation is to kill a few soldiers.
AR: We can see some decisions in context now, but still, they were wrong, weren’t they?
KA: Wrong in the sense of…?
AR: If [General] Dallaire had acted, might that not have saved thousands of lives?
KA: Dallaire himself said, if I had 5,000 men, I think I could have stopped this. And seeing the size of the murderous operation I agree that if he had 5,000 men he probably could have stopped it. Sometimes in peacekeeping operations you show force in order not to use force - people realise that there’s a pushback and there’s a solid force there that’s not going to be pushed around, that sometimes helps. But he didn’t have that force and, given the numbers, I’m not too sure that if he had acted it would have scared the people away.
When you look at the extensive nature of the plan, of the conspiracy, it may have slowed them or stopped them in Kigali but I’m not sure it could have stopped the nationwide attack. And it could also have accelerated the withdrawal of the UN troops because some of them would have been killed much sooner and the Belgians would have gone much faster. And that was our most effective unit with good equipment.
AR: On a personal level, when you look back over your tenure, is that the one thing that you might have done differently?
KA: 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.
AR: What of the Congo mission, over which the UN has been heavily criticised?
KA: When people talk of the UN’s largest mission, in terms of area of operation, the numbers are very small. And the mandate of the peacekeepers, given the fact that they can’t be everywhere, is to protect civilians. And in some situations, they moved reinforcements to certain areas to be helpful. The difficulty is, you have a force that raises expectations.
In fact, we used to say, sometimes with peacekeeping you send in a force that’s too big to hide and too small to be effective because the sense is, do something, not that you’ve done effective military planning, that you’re going in there to contain the situation and deal with it. And, honestly speaking, sometimes the mandate is given but the resources do not follow.
When you come to this Congo situation, what we really need in peacekeeping is a sort of rapid response capacity, where in the theatre, if… they are mass-raping women or can be… then you have the capacity to reinforce. You can come in with the additional resource, additional forces to deal with it.
It has two impacts. First of all, it encourages the peacekeepers on the ground to take more risks, knowing reinforcements are available and the commander will bear that in mind. Without reinforcement, sometimes – the question I raised – they hesitate to take risk.
When you talk to the UN commanders, it pains them that they are not [doing as much as people would want.] But the generals say that when you have a situation where these guys come in at night, move from hut to hut, committing these brutal acts of rape, he said they’ve struggled with that. How do you provide protection, how do you use your men?
And invariably it’s difficult for them to know and they don’t have enough men to be able to spread out and do what would be required. And I don’t have arguments to challenge them on this. You can always tell them you should do more, you must protect civilians. But on the rape issue, which has come up time and time again, they haven’t been able to work out a strategy to do this. And it can happen again tomorrow, I’m sorry to say.
AR: So what does this tell us about the giant peacekeeping structure? Should there be a small, permanent rapid-reaction force?
KA: In some operations we’ve had the rapid-reaction force but if you have a rapid- reaction force, it has to be a force that’s readily available, which means that it’s not a force that you assign normal duties because once you assign them normal duties, you’ve lost that ability to move rapidly.
And often, they don’t have the numbers to have a rapid-reaction capacity with the numbers required to be able to move very quickly. Really, one should have that capacity within the theatre in a situation like Congo, where you have these kinds of problems, so that they can be called on and they can go in. There has to be a force on the horizon that can come very quickly. But the way we run and fund peacekeeping, this capacity is unavailable.
AR: When and why did you decide to focus on agriculture in your post-UN career?
KA: Over the years I was following developments on the continent and when we came up with MDGs [Millennium Development Goals], one of their roles was reducing hunger and poverty by 50 per cent. The only way this continent can reduce hunger is by increasing its food production. I also saw the work of welfare programme organisations expanding constantly, bringing food aid to Africa when we should be focusing on getting agriculture right.
With climate change, the problem was going to get bigger and I couldn’t see how one can live on food aid. When you look at the continent and the question of development, agriculture can be such a multiplier. If we get agriculture right in Africa, where most of the people now are working in that sector, not only would it help boost development but we will be secure in terms of food and nutrition and then be able to move on to other areas. I felt that if I, as a free man, when I step down as Secretary-General, devote a bit of my time to this, I may be able to help move it forward.
AR: Would it be over-psychoanalysing to say that after decades in this huge global bureaucracy this is now finally a chance to actually…
KA: Do some of the things I was pushing? That is part of it but another reason was that there is an economic basis to conflict and often that fight over scarce resources can lead to conflicts and competition. So, in a way, what you said was right but you can also see it as trying to help provide a solid basis, which eventually can diminish that fight over resources, which often leads to conflict around the world.
AR: How much of an issue is genetically modified food, which is a sensitive subject in Africa? Is it going to be tricky?
KA: It does come up and yet, as we move forward, you cannot resolve the potential food crisis or shortages without science being part of the solution. Science has to be part of the solution but African governments – and these are decisions for governments, whether they embrace or do not embrace genetically modified food – and for the moment, most African companies do not accept genetically modified seeds.
We had an interesting experience about five, six years ago. There was famine in Southern Africa and we had food for then – the World Food Programme, that is. The US offered food which was genetically modified. They refused it, including Zambia and Tanzania, on the grounds that if they allow this genetically modified produce to come in, it may affect their own production. And if that were to be the case, they could not export anything to Europe so they didn’t want to take the risk.
And in fact, I recall sharing this story with Bush and [Jean] Chrétien at the G8 summit and Chrétien said, but I have lived on that all my life and here I am at the ripe age of almost 70 to tell it. And George said, I’ll be damned, you mean they were starving and they didn’t take the food we were giving, the food we eat? I said, I’m sorry….. but they wouldn’t take it because it was genetically modified.
So this is something that, over time, they will have to decide. Just as Europe is struggling with it, this continent is struggling with it too, because it’s very linked to the European position.
The UN: Annan’s record and his successor
AR: Now is such a hectic time, with great events unfolding left, right and centre. Do you wish you were back in your old job or do you think, thank goodness, I did my stint and now it’s someone else’s turn?
KA: No. I look at it in terms of, I had an opportunity for 10 years to lead the organisation and tried to do as much as I can. Now the secretary general Ban is in charge. I told him once, I said: “It’s always a difficult time to be secretary general, but you seem to have a particularly difficult time. But he’s showing courage, determination and leadership in extremely… in almost impossible circumstances. And I’m perhaps one of the few people in the world who truly understands what he’s going through and what he probably goes to bed at night wondering and thinking about - hoping that he’s not going to wake up the next morning to yet another crisis with all that is already on his plate. But I don’t look back. I think I had enough excitement during my time.
AR: Do you speak to him regularly?
KA: We speak quite often, yes. We speak on some of the issues, for example, when I am working on Kenya or going somewhere the UN is heavily involved, I make sure he or his office knows, and why we are going and that he knows we are supportive of the UN efforts.
AR: Looking back on your 10 years, what do you regard as your finest achievement?
KA: Most people expect me to say the Nobel Peace Prize. But I think two things stand out. One is the Millennium Development Goals, and getting leaders to accept that they need to fight poverty and do something, and that the gap between the rich and the poor cannot keep growing without nothing being done about it.
Second, I also became convinced that there was an economic basis to conflict. Usually, when you look around the world, people are killing each other, fighting over scarce resources. So I was very happy that in a way they accepted the concept of fighting against poverty, and that the MDGs became more or less our global framework for helping the poor.
The other thing I was happy about was that the leaders accepted the norm of the “responsibility to protect”. I think I first raised it in 1997, and then in the general assembly in 1999, and it was in 2005 that the member states finally embraced it. It was not universally popular and in fact some thought it will never go anywhere. So you can imagine my satisfaction when I saw the Security Council relying on that now when it approved the Libyan resolution.
AR: What about the flipside? What about regret, what could you have done better?
KA: One of my biggest regrets was the fact that as an institution and an international community we could not stop the war in Iraq. That really was very difficult and very painful. Every fibre in my body felt it was wrong. I spoke to leaders, we spoke to people, we tried… we couldn’t stop it… and we see the results. The other… apart from some mediation things, where Cyprus or Western Sahara didn’t work, was UN reform.
UN reform and dealing with John Bolton
KA: The other thing that really I regretted not being able to do was to push effectively for the reform of the Security Council. Because the world was changing, and is changing very fast, and I felt the UN was holding on to old arrangements. Most governments felt that it has such a narrow power base, based on the results of the second world war. I felt that if those with the privileges were going to be able to hold on to what they had, they had to look at the world in coldly realistic terms and ask themselves, how much power should we give up to make the participation of the emerging countries and emerging regions meaningful?
Because in the long run, that is the only way they can hold on to some of the privileges they have. Because if you don’t do that, you’re heading for possibly destructive competition, and a period where some of these emerging countries and regions will just ignore the decisions.
How can you have a world of today where India is not represented in the Council; Japan, the second contributor, is not there; the whole continent of Africa, soon to be 54 countries, don’t have a single permanent seat; and Latin America is absent? It’s not realistic. But as I think I mentioned to you, I’m also… I’ve been around enough to realise that there are two things that once people have them, they don’t want to give up, and it’s extremely difficult to convince them to give up: one is privileges, and the other is subsidies. We often hear a lot about subsidies, because it’s often the powerful talking about the poor; the poor don’t have enough voice to question the privileges.
AR: How close were you to getting reform, do you think?
KA: It was quite intense. Remember we set up the panel to look at fresh challenges and change? The group recommended an intermediate approach, that you should have semi-permanent seats. And so even now we have the two… we have the permanent seats and the two-year rotational seats. Of course the big countries that were interested in the Council wanted permanent seats, because it was fine to be elected for a semi-permanent seat, but you can be bounced in the next round, which for some was unsatisfactory and becomes even more humiliating. Let’s say India or Japan gets a semi-permanent seat, but then they get bounced the next time round.
At the same time, the semi-permanent seat was a relief to countries like Pakistan, that didn’t want India; and even some of the countries in Latin America, with Brazil arguing that we are natural; and even for the Chinese – I believed, short of a permanent seat, they were flexible – and I think their problem was Japan.
As we have seen recently, almost every major head of state goes to India and says, we believe India should be in the Council. They go back home and do nothing about it. But this cannot be sustained for long. If they want to keep the UN as a global forum where they discuss incidents and take some meaningful decisions, they should [reform].
When you look at [the vote on] Libya, it was interesting. The countries that abstained… luckily they did not vote against it… almost all the major countries abstained. So the resolution got through, but with big countries abstaining it raised serious questions.
And this is also interesting… when you have difficult issues on the table for discussion, then sometimes for Africa you may have Burundi or Gambia representing them on the Council; and then for Latin America you may have a country like Costa Rica, which is a wonderful country but they don’t have the same weight as others from the other regions. And sometimes they get bullied. Sometimes their capitals come under lots of pressure to take a position.
On the question of Iraq, some governments showed incredible courage: the way even Mexico and Chile wouldn’t roll over for the US; but the ambassadors paid the price. Both of them were recalled fairly shortly, and in fact the Mexican one died in an accident soon after he got out. And so you need to have a certain balance… a certain balance for the region, even for the decision-making process of the UN itself because if you were to reform it, I think the UN would become more democratic, more representative, and gain greater legitimacy, and the decisions would be on much more solid grounds.
AR: And it does need that, doesn’t it?
KA: It really needs it. It’s not a favour one is doing to anybody. What is really remarkable is we’re dealing with a group of countries who understand power relationships: My own feeling is that if you have massive support of the membership… People tell me the US will never ratify – I said… let’s say you were to have a council that brings in Brazil, India, Japan, Egypt, South Africa or Nigeria, and others, and everybody else approves. Is Washington is going to block it? Would they want to make enemies of all these people in today’s world? I don’t see it happening. Sometimes they kept saying, well, we will have Japan and one other country, and I kept saying, Japan is not going to get in alone. If I had been around I would still be pushing.
AR: [John] Bolton cast something of a shadow over your last year, did he not? What was your conclusion of his role?
KA: I was surprised that the US would send somebody like him to New York at a time when they needed friends. They needed friends around the world after the Iraq war. And it was remarkable that for someone who has spent that much time at the State Department, as smart as he was, he wasn’t a very effective diplomat, or even a negotiator. Most of his colleagues found him disruptive, in the sense that they were working on reforms, for example, where they would have discussed it over months, and at the last minute he would put down about 150 amendments… yes, 150 amendments, and you can imagine the reaction. So he was even isolated in his own western group. We heard that he was sent to New York because they didn’t want to keep him in Washington, which is a very odd way of solving a problem, when you need, as I said, to make friends around the world. And he is someone who was known for his anti-UN views, before, yes, so people in Washington could not say they didn’t know who they were sending, but obviously they found him more of a problem for them in Washington than in New York, and so it depends on one’s assessment.
AR: Did you ever have any tart words with him?
KA: Once at a monthly lunch at the Council we were discussing something when he came up and he said, “Uncle Sam is not going to like this, and this was for the Council.” So I said: look, stop going around trying to intimidate people. Let them speak their mind, have their views, and you can put your views across, but don’t try to intimidate them with Washington and Uncle Sam. And of course, the Council members were all relieved to hear it…
The other time I had real difference with him – but that was OK because his boss resolved the issue – was over the Lebanese Israeli Hezbollah war. I had tried to push for cessation of hostilities from the beginning, and there was resistance to it, because honestly I think the US and UK thought if they gave a bit more time to Israel, they would crush Hezbollah. But it became very obvious that was an unwinnable war. So when they started talking of ceasefire… a ceasefire takes much longer to negotiate - I said, no, go for cessation of hostilities, for immediate cessation of hostilities, and then you can work out the detail, the demands on both sides, and then we’ll try and put an international force in the middle to try and separate the protagonists.
The resolution said immediate cessation of hostilities, and I said, but it’s not good enough, there is no date and there’s no time, and there’s nothing in the resolution indicating how it should be managed. And [Bolton] said, but immediate means immediate, and I said, immediate to whom? To the general, to the colonel, to the foot soldier? Because having been in peacekeeping, you know that usually to get instructions down to the foot soldier, it needs time, and so you normally would say 00.00 hours, such and such a date, you all stand down, no activities; and you have to make sure it goes through the command, and everybody knows it, and accepts it. But he either didn’t understand it… And then I spoke to Condi, and Condi said, yes, I see the point. So I negotiated with the two prime ministers, with the Israeli and the Lebanese prime minister, that the effective date of the resolution would be 00.00 hours, such and such, and that took some time, going back and forth; and this was after the resolution, and quite a lot of damage was done during that weekend.
Oil for food
AR: What went wrong with the Oil for Food programme and how difficult was it for you to keep going as secretary-general?
KA: It was hurtful, it was hard, in the sense that those who set up the programme knew exactly what they were doing; when the sanctions were in place, it became obvious that the Iraqi people were hurt, and they realised that unless you did something for the Iraqi population, the sanctions would erode. And so the concept of “oil for food” came up. I think it was towards the end of Boutros [Boutros-Ghali]’s term that they agreed to do the Oil for Food programme. They gave Saddam the authority to select the buyers and work out the contracts, and quite a lot of the contracts went into the Council for them to review for double use. It even came up that the pencil lead could have a double use, which was ridiculous. So when the crisis hit, everybody looked at the UN and said that the UN was corrupt. The investigations came up with 2,200 companies that had done deals with Saddam. The interesting thing is that when that came out the press lost interest. In the UN they only found one person who was accused, Benon Sevan. There was a lot of fuss about my son having worked for Cotecna. In the end, the investigation didn’t find any wrongdoing with the contract, in interfering with the contract, but by then lots of harm had been done. What was also interesting was that obviously my special friends in Washington also wanted to exploit this. So things that were said in private to the Volcker Commission [which was investigating Oil for Food] always found their way into the press, so they had a mole.
What was surprising was that the governments and ambassadors who knew what was happening and what had happened wouldn’t speak up. Of course, you can understand why they wouldn’t want to attract attention to themselves or the failure of their governments, for not having been assertive enough in the Chapter Seven resolution, and allowing the companies to make deals. If I recall correctly, the Wheat Board of Australia paid about US$300m, and they were making so much noise about the UN until this came up, and then they shut up.
But this is not to say that we did nothing wrong. Despite the drawbacks of that scheme we probably could have managed it better, but it was set up in a way that major decision centres were not in the hands of the secretariat, particularly where Saddam decided who the contracts were to go to, negotiated the contracts, and then we’d be assured that the payment was made and had gone into the account. So it was a very complex and difficult situation, but it was hurtful. In the end, I think it was hurtful.
AR: Did you ever think of resigning?
KA: No, because I felt resignation would be easy. First of all, they would have gone after the organisation much more, and to have the members appoint a secretary in that sort of atmosphere, to satisfy that lynch mob, because it was a political lynching, would have been totally wrong. On the other hand, it would have been easy to say, who needs this? And I’m walking off. But that would not have been a solution.
AR: There was, of course, the personal involvement of your son, Kojo. Is this the classic story of the playboy son of the successful man ?
KA: Yes. What is interesting is that Kojo was working for this company when he was 21 or 22, and they made this young man in his early twenties do things that he perhaps couldn’t even understand. For example, I had to stop him and his lawyers putting out a statement that this was a witch hunt and he had done nothing wrong, and they were trying to get to me through him. I said, you don’t do that, just back off and tell your lawyer not to do it. But, as I say, he was a young person working with this company, and working for them in Lagos. Obviously, knowing who I was, I kept the family, the children and my UN work quite separate. There are two daughters [one a stepdaughter], who are much older, and they never did anything. I even encouraged them not to go into the international service because I thought that would be difficult. So for me it was very painful to see that.
Some were trying to attack my own integrity, and also at the same time, my son. And they were throwing up so much smoke that people wouldn’t even know what to believe until the [Volcker] report came out, what was going on, who was telling the truth, and all that. It was very difficult, because having gone through my career without any whiff or hint of this, suddenly they threw this at me. I mean when you look back, in retrospect, if they [the right-wing media] do it to their own leaders, Gore and others, they can do it to anybody. But it’s not something you expect.
AR: Have you had a rapprochement with your son now?
KA: Yes. That’s fine, yes.
Annan’s future and conclusions on the UN
AR: Were you ever tempted to go into politics?
KA: No. When I was stepping down I had lots of approaches to run for office [in Ghana. They said the timing worked, because I was stepping down in 2006 and the next elections were in 2008, and I remember some people coming to me who were thinking of running, but [they] said, if you are going to be a candidate we won’t run. And others said we want you to run, and I kept saying, no, I’ve had 10 years as secretary general and I think I’ve made my contribution, and besides, you need the next generation. You need younger men in Africa, men and women in African politics. I think the generational change is going to be so important for Africa that we really should encourage and push it as much as we can, because some of these younger men and women, who are men and women of their times, and are also connected to the rest of the world, wouldn’t even know how to behave in the way some of the old leaders do.
I can’t think of a 30- or 40-year-old who can behave like Mugabe. They wouldn’t even know where to begin, and given their own educational exposure, I think it will be very positive for the continent.
AR: When you first joined the UN it was a time of great dreams and hopes for the organisation. Again in the early 1990s was another time of great hope, and both times those hopes have been dashed. Was that inevitable? Is the UN dream impossible to achieve?
KA: There was a time, with the Berlin Wall down, that [it looked as if] the UN finally could do what it was set up to do, the rivalry between the two camps would dissipate, and we could all co-operate. And then, of course, Iraq came and blew it all apart. These upheavals will always take place in the world, and the design and construct of the UN ideally should be such that it can deal with these upheavals, and possibly influence them, and survive and thrive, but it doesn’t work out that way, because as an organisation we are so dependent on the same member states. It’s extremely difficult for a secretary general to deal with the world and the organisation when you have these major upheavals. Let me give you an example.
During the Iraq debate, the question of the second resolution was being debated, whether the second resolution was needed in the council before one could go to war. I said, in my judgement the second resolution was needed and that the council should pass the second resolution before any action was taken. Immediately, I got a call from the capital, saying, oh, we see you’ve taken the side of the French. I give you this example, because it’s interesting that when there is such division the secretary general has several roles. Apart from focusing on the substantive issue at hand, he has to also play a role of conciliator and bring in both sides.
AR: And if you don’t have the US onside you’re finished?
KA: You’re finished, and in some situations it’s not just if you don’t have the others, the US… I kept telling them that veto is a negative power. You can use it to block things, but you cannot use it to make things happen. In the end you need the support of the other members, you need at least those nine votes, and, as you say, if you don’t have the US onside on certain things it won’t move. Not only the US, others won’t move, in some situations, and we saw it in Somalia, when the US decided they were leaving, all the well-equipped soldiers left.
AR: I have seen two sides of Kofi Annan. I have seen the man of Africa, steering a great agricultural project, and now I’m seeing you in the role you’re better known in, in Geneva. When I spoke to Mo Ibrahim, I said, how do I understand Mr Annan, and he said, you must understand he’s a great African. Which is the real Annan?
KA: In a way, you can say that it is two separate roles. I spent my youth and my most formative years in Africa. I left Africa when I was about 20, 21, and when Mo says a great African, I was really moulded by my African experience, although I had the good fortune that by the time I was 24 I had studied and worked on three continents - Africa, the US, and Europe. But I came to the agriculture from the work I did in New York, particularly when we talked about fighting poverty and freedom. A hungry mind is not free, and I felt if we were really going to make a difference and fight poverty we should at least start with the ability to feed ourselves, and the millions of Africans who don’t have it.
In a way, it’s also interesting to come from the ideals and the theories to the practical, trying to implement some of the things, to help, advocate, or implement some of the things you are pushed for from the glasshouse of New York. This is something I really believe will succeed. I think we can make a difference in the lives of the poor, and the millions. It will also bring us a bit closer to achieving the Millennium Development Goals and reducing poverty, as we’ve sworn we want to do.
AR: The first evening I met you, you talked about optimism and how the world is divided between optimists and pessimists. You clearly put yourself in the former camp, but in this awful world that just continues to bubble away, and with, say, the repression in Syria, is your optimism not sometimes tested. Do you not think, actually sometimes I’m wrong?
KA: Perhaps that’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist - that even in those situations, what I see are people who have been deprived of their democratic rights, and in some cases their dignity. Corrupt practices have been imposed on them, with impunity, and yet they have not lost their spirit, they were not broken. They wake up and demand their rights, and for me that gives me hope. That gives me hope that all is not lost, and that however much one tries to suppress the will of the people they eventually will have the last word.
The question you posed was a bit like a question somebody asked me years ago about the Vietnam war, watching a film about former president Lyndon Johnson. I said, I feel for him, and I saw something about him that I didn’t think he had, because in the end he was a broken man. The whole Vietnam experience had such an impact on him. Until then we all saw a man that was larger than life, who came from Texas where everything was bigger and better. Yet his sensitivity as a human being was not numbed by all the power, all the bravado, all the swagger. In the end he behaved perhaps how more sensitive people would behave when they go through that experience. The fellow said, how can you feel that sort of thing?
I said, well, I could say, “the bastard, and all that” but when you look at him, the lesson I draw is the fact that with all the power in the world and all the things he did that human sensitivity was not numb, and he showed it.
AR: Have you acquired your self-control or were you born with it?
KA: Time and age probably have something to do with it. I was an ordinary boy at school, a young man. In fact, what did the headmaster once say? “You’re constantly challenging those in authority; questioning and challenging those in authority.” Which was not really the way I saw it. I felt there were questions that had to be answered, and things that weren’t quite right. We had a rule in the school that when you’re punished, you carry out the punishment and then complain, which I felt was absolutely unfair: if I’d done it, what was the point of complaining?
But I think over time you learn to know a bit more about yourself – you develop a certain amount of self-insight and self-awareness, and you know what you can absorb, and what you cannot; what gets to you and what doesn’t. And I observe a lot. I see a lot around me. And over time you also get to understand the nature of man and the environments you are dealing with, and you can’t always allow emotions and temper to flare up because you’re displeased with something, or you want to change it.
Sometimes I walk into a situation and I know somebody is going to provoke me – not maybe, I know he will provoke me - I know he will provoke me! And there are times when I simply refuse to be provoked. And the other times you have to use that superior knowledge to carry on at work without distraction, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted. I laugh a lot inside and outside, and at myself sometimes.
AR: So who tried the hardest to provoke you?
KA: I’ve had a couple of journalists try. I think it was a Brazilian or Italian journalist who came to interview me in New York in my second term and then did his piece and he said: “I can tell from my experience he’s not easy to provoke; I tried three times!”
AR: What about politicians, in particular in America, with whom you had quarrels?
KA: I had my quarrels; there were times when it was really irritating, and even annoying; but getting into a public spat with them was really no use. Somebody, one of the American politicians, said something about the UN; I said, but why do we have to take it? Why don’t we answer back? And I was told: “Mr Secretary-General, it’s very simple: they have bigger loudspeakers than we do. And that’s how you get drowned out, and you won’t be heard; and you don’t want to get into that sort of match with them.”
But over the period I dealt with some very difficult and emotional wrenching issues at the UN – Bosnia Herzegovina. At the same time, you need to carry on with your work. So what I find is that you have to develop a certain healthy distance to allow you to keep a clear head, to be able to analyse the situation, lead your team, and move forward with them, because there are times if I’m not careful… if you get too involved, it will consume you; it will consume you, and you will not be good to your team; the issues you are dealing with…
AR: I suppose there are some instances, during the years you were secretary- general and previously in charge of peacekeeping, when some might say that actually maybe you should have just spoken out. I’m thinking of Somalia, when the US Administration unfairly blamed the UN…
KA: And there was no reaction. You may have noticed over the years that the UN became a bit more media-friendly, a bit more open to the media than in the past. The UN was very media-shy, and its relationship with the press was very controlled; although periodically I spoke to the press, the rule was, only the secretary-general speaks to the press; only the secretary-general makes… So you would see many situations where under-secretaries-general would come in and speak. I opened that, and I encouraged all of them to speak in their areas, whether it was peacekeeping or humanitarian efforts.
AR: What about speaking out over Bosnia?
KA: 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.
AR: Malcolm Rifkind [the former British foreign secretary] wrote an article in The Times recently, giving an implicit side-swipe at the UN.
KA: 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.
AR: So you weren’t tempted to speak out then?
KA: 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.
The Iraq war and relations with the Bush Administration
AR: What was the toughest time for you?
KA: Iraq was tough. Iraq was the toughest. First of all, I thought we could have been a bit more patient and given the inspectors more time to do their work. And I fought very hard, negotiated very hard with the Iraqis to get their inspectors back in as they had not finished their work, when the pressure to go to war was building up. I wonder whether it became for some a question of calendar. Given the heat in the region – if you go way beyond March it would be difficult for the soldiers, but why put them there…? Anyway I think basically it became a calendar issue and a determination to get Saddam out.
AR: It seems pretty clear that no matter how you or anyone else negotiated they would have gone to war.
KA: They were going to war. There was this charade, discussions and all that – but they were going to go to war because they had made the facile analysis that they’d be met with drums and flowers. They were determined to go to war, and as you said, nothing would have stopped them. But what was remarkable was that US could not even get the votes of its neighbours – Mexico, Chile – … it showed you how strong the countries felt about this.
The divisions were tough because they were breaking a hope that we all had. After the end of the cold war, everybody thought, fantastic, finally the UN may be able to do what it was originally set up to do without big power divisions. It would be easy to get them to come together to resolve things. You will recall, on the first Gulf war, you almost got a unanimous resolution and a very solid coalition.
In fact, I was there for the 50th anniversary of Kuwait and 20th anniversary of the war two or three weeks ago, and all the players were there – Jim Baker, Colin Powell, etc. And, of course, Jim reminded me that that was a war that we fought right, based on UN resolutions. We built a solid coalition which stayed with us throughout. At the last point, and I’m not sure if you would want me to repeat it to you, I’m sure Jim wouldn’t mind… and said, and therefore we got others to pay for it.
AR: Although they did… the one great controversy, of course, of that war is stopping as the Shias revolted.
KA: So now we have to answer that question in Libya. I thought it was a wise decision for them not to go beyond their mandate [in Iraq] and Libya, we’ll see about…
AR: What about Libya – a similar situation?
KA: I think it could become complex, it could lead to a stalemate because it’s obvious that the rebel side don’t have the means nor the organisation or the command to take the war to Gaddafi, even with the damage that has been done by the bombing.
And if it becomes one of those situations where neither side can offer a knock-out punch, how long does it go on? How long do people remain engaged? And when you have a situation where, for some people in Libya, they will keep pushing for the removal of Gaddafi with almost a feeling of: you don’t go through all this effort and leave us with him… But this is where the debate amongst the countries is. It’s going to be a tough one.
AR: So what happens when you see Colin Powell now? Are you friends again?
KA: In fact, we never ceased to be friends. We had disagreements over policy. He had a difficult job to do, problems beyond… we had difficult situations to handle, but we’ve always been friends. The war didn’t break it.
AR: So were you speaking the whole time then?
KA: Yes, we were speaking the whole time during the crisis. There were times when we agreed, and quite often we didn’t agree. He was taking a position which was a US position, but there were 191 other member states or 14 other members in the Council. Even if the UK was with them, they were not reflecting the views of the majority and, in fact, they couldn’t get the votes. That’s why they skipped the second resolution.
AR: So what did you think that day when he stood up and delivered what was supposed to be the Adlai Stevenson presentation?
KA: I thought he presented his case forcefully, but I was not convinced. Probably I wasn’t convinced because I knew a bit more than others. I was also in direct and constant touch with the [inspectors] so I knew how their work was proceeding, and what was happening or not happening on the ground. And also, over time, I had become very careful about intelligence, because intelligence can be used to manipulate.
AR: But you didn’t feel let down by Powell? This man who was deemed to be the embodiment of so much good sense in US policy-making?
KA: Yes and no. I wish the message had been different, and that he had delivered a different message; at the same time, he’s part of a team. And some people say, why didn’t he quit? It’s not that easy to quit. When you look back in the American system it is very rare that people quit on issues of principle. You may, if you look into history, have a lot of it in the UK – I think apart from what they called the Saturday Night Massacre, under Nixon – it is very rare that you get it.
People may be unhappy, but ultimately you belong to that group. You live in it. And so normally when people resign they will organise their champagne farewell parties… and then they resurface somewhere. And also, don’t forget, he had the military training and the question of a team and loyalty to a team is very powerful.
He’s smart, he was highly respected by all his peers around the world, and yet on this one issue, which I know wasn’t easy for him, I’m not sure resignation was an option. If he had, it’s true it would have made a difference; probably he would have considered it, but I’m not sure from watching we would ourselves have concluded - and he was inside and knew it would be more - that his resignation would have stopped the war. It may have given them a pause, but not stopped it.
AR: What about the more hawkish members of the administration? Are you as forgiving of them, and what do you feel now about Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz?
KA: I don’t know what drove them to want… to assert American authority, American power, the way they did it, because many of us felt it was going to be counter-productive. You will recall that for months after 9/11, there was incredible support and sympathy for the US. I really hoped and wished they had played on that, and kept all these friends they had made, and found a way of dealing with the terrorists through co-operation of international intelligence services, police exchange of information…
I put forward a strategy, an anti-terrorism strategy, but of course they felt you had to use force. And to use force in one situation in Afghanistan, which had not been concluded, and to start a second war, was difficult to comprehend. Chirac and everybody was telling them this is going to be a disaster, but those of us who were not for the war became the enemies, and they were so determined to push it all…
AR: So if you saw Rumsfeld?
KA: I’d forgive him. Yes, I would talk to him. In fact, I’ve seen Wolfowitz since… Remember he became head of the World Bank… Rumsfeld, I would talk to him. He made mistakes, in my judgment some serious mistakes, but we all make mistakes, and I’m not sure that [because of] that he may seem worthless as a human being and somebody you wouldn’t want to talk to or deal with. So, no, I will talk to him, and perhaps be quite open and friendly with him.
AR: And the same with George W Bush?
KA: George, yes. This may surprise you, we got on well. One on one, I consider George a friend. I can separate the ideas of the man from the intrinsic worth of the individual, and not mix them up and dismiss both.
So he and his wife, Laura, are wonderful human beings. She’s very… a wonderful person. And so I will have no problems sitting down and having another meal with him as we did. .
AR: His ideas nearly all but led to the destruction of the UN – I mean, not quite the destruction, but… your organisation was tipped close to the edge.
KA: He really pushed us to the brink; he pushed us to the brink and when that was happening the ambassadors became cautious even talking to each other and wondering what will be reported back. But they did their job. I thought they were both courageous and did the right thing, and I firmly believe that it would have been one of the biggest mistakes the Security Council would have made if it had endorsed the war. Can you imagine if today, people say, well, we went to Iraq, but first we had a Council resolution?
For the Security Council to endorse a decision that was wrong, a war that was wrong, would have damaged the Council. I mean, I know Tony Blair’s argument for not pressing to go to the Council was the fact that the French had indicated they would veto the resolution. That, I think, is one of the weakest arguments: to say I’m not going to the Council – but it’s part of the democratic process.
As prime minister, it was a bit like saying we were going to put up an important bill in the House of Commons but Labour say they won’t support it, so we’re going to go ahead and do it anyway. Normally you pull it back, because the support is not there. But you don’t say that because the support is not there, we are going ahead, and then blame those who use their democratic rights to let you know they will vote against you.
AR: What do you make of Blair now?
KA: He’s a very able politician; he’s perhaps one of the best of his generation. He made a major contribution in many areas, but in Iraq I believe he got it wrong. He got it wrong.
AR: Why did he get it wrong?
KA: He was given a set of facts that he believed in and so he operated from that; it seemed as if he operated on a set of facts that were not available to some of us, or some of us had rejected. I think it’s also… he believes very strongly in the special relationship with North America, and I suspect that belief also played a role. And if we were talking about the war dividing the UN, it also divided Europe very badly.
AR: Yes, yes. If there was a yet worse moment, I suppose, in terms of Iraq, it was a few months after the invasion, the attack on the UN .
KA: That was very painful, emotionally, psychologically, because these are people I knew. Quite a few of them longed to go there so they could make a difference, they could make a contribution. And they had gone there to help. And up till that point, even throughout Somalia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, the UN flag had never been a target. The UN, as such, had not been a target.
Even when they tried to humiliate some of our peacekeepers, they very rarely attacked them so brutally, except perhaps in Somalia and Rwanda. And for me, personally, it was [very sad] to see Sérgio [Vieira de Mello] go and, a whole group of them who were very bright, very dedicated and having a bright future ahead of them in the organisation. And I had spoken to Sérgio a day before he was killed so it was really very painful.
AR: Did you blame the Americans, given that they’d broken the state, as it were?
KA: I blamed them a lot. They pushed the war and they led the war.
AR: What about for the attack on UN headquarters?
KA: I don’t think it would be fair to blame the Americans entirely. They started the whole adventure in the first place. But I think we at the UN were perhaps also a bit complacent regarding the security situation. Remember, they had bombed a Jordanian Embassy before that. Our team analysed that, and they felt that was an isolated situation and it wouldn’t necessarily impact or have effect on our work or our presence, which was obviously totally and dangerously wrong. And also, there has been a tendency in the UN not to work behind barracks.
AR: You were criticised within the UN for immediately saying the UN would stay on. Was that a mistake?
KA: Probably, probably, but I think… I will tell you why I said that. In fact, I was in Europe at the time and I was waiting to see the… We hadn’t got the full report on the nature of the attack, and in fact, there were rumours that Sérgio may be alive and there was a question of him talking to somebody and we were waiting for more information. In fact, the message I was trying to send out is that the UN will not be intimidated to leave. We have work to do and we have a commitment to the Iraqi people that we will not abandon and we will carry on with our work. I didn’t want to create the impression that we could be scared away as an organisation with one bomb. It was not being callous or insensitive to the concerns of my staff.
AR: A friend of mine from the BBC, Owen Bennett-Jones, interviewed you the following year and you gave that famous remark about the war being illegal. You gave the impression of it being coaxed out of you, but was it deliberate?
KA: No. As I said to him, my position has always been against war, and I’ve said right from the beginning, even the year before, to go to war without the Security Council will not be in conformity with the Council; and I had also spoken before the General Assembly, saying that if one is going to do this sort of thing, it’s only the Security Council that can confirm the legitimacy. A nation has the right to defend itself, but when it comes to the broader issue of peace and security, the legitimacy rests only with the Security Council.
AR: What is your view of autocracies?
KA: We tend to look at countries in terms of failed states and functioning states, which is rather simplistic. Good, healthy democratic societies are built on three pillars: there’s peace and stability, economic development, and respect for rule of law and human rights. And where all three are present, you stand a very good chance of making a go of it. But often, we take stability - peace in terms of security and economic activity - to mean a country is doing well. We forget the third and important pillar of rule of law and respect for human rights, because no country can long remain prosperous without that third pillar.
AR: In Kenya you stopped what was becoming a hideous civil war. Is that a template for other such scenarios?
KA: There are lessons from Kenya that could be helpful in other situations. Having said that, let me hasten to add that each crisis is different, has its own specificities, and we need to look at it critically; look at each one in its own terms. There were lessons in Kenya, which I believe can be applied elsewhere, in the sense that what I and the team tried to do was not to stitch up the differences between the political leaders, but to get them to tackle other long-term issues, and also deal with issues of concern to the people. As an international community, we have a tendency when we get into these situations sometimes to look at how do we make peace between the political elite and those who are fighting, forgetting the people underneath them and the nation?
In Kenya, we made the conscious decision that we should not only deal with the war and political leaders, but we should also deal with issues of concern to the people, and that is one of the reasons why we set up a commission to look into who committed all these atrocities, who engineered it, which has led to six of them ending up in the Hague, as well as looking into what went wrong, why the elections were so flawed, what lessons do we learn from that, and how can they reform the electoral process… to make sure this doesn’t happen again? And this again led to the new constitution and a lot of this happened.
That was a very conscious thing that we did. We also made a conscious decision that this is not an issue between [members of] the political elite. The people are involved. You have to bring in civil society, religious leaders, the business community, media owners, women’s organisations and human rights activists. So they all played a part right from the beginning, and we tried to make it as transparent as possible by telling the people, we are not going to keep you in the dark. Every agreement we sign, we will make public so that you can also monitor it and make sure it’s implemented. It’s your agreement. It’s your country.
And I think that has made a difference, because there was a buy-in by the people. Recently, when you look at the Kenyan papers, it’s quite remarkable, the role civil society has played, and most of them are headed by women.
Today business leaders meet once a month or so with the prime minister, discussing these issues, and you hear them saying, look, the type of political discourse is affecting confidence in business and is going to slow progress, and these are things they should have been saying. So I’m quite encouraged, even though the political leaders have not changed their stripes.
AR: Well, that seems to be the worry. Next year, there’s meant to be another election. Is that not also going to be swamped in violence?
KA: It is worrying the way the elite handled this. When you look at all the effort that has gone into protecting those who are accused… the six who are accused, and compare that with the effort they have made to help the displaced and the victims, it’s rather sad. It’s rather sad.
But I think what gives me hope is I have the sense that the people of Kenya have turned the page. They are keen to get a new political dispensation. They are keen to fight corruption and impunity, and in that sense they are leaving the political elite behind. They have turned the page, but the political elite don’t seem to have realised it, and I hope the results of the 2012 election, and how they vote, will drive this home.
AR: But what if the political elite decide to dispute a result or to turn their supporters against each other?
KA: This is where I would hope the people would also have learnt a lesson. Last time around, they paid with their lives. This is where it’s a bit sad when you see a situation where the people were manipulated to turn on each other and kill each other, and the same people are being used to defend the accused. They are saying, if you touch us, there’ll be holy hell to pay. There will be riots and all this.
AR: How high up does it go? Does it go to the very top? There’s endless speculation about whether the guilt goes up to the president and to Raila Odinga?
KA: There is speculation, but I will have to let the law take its course and say that obviously having indicted the six, the evidence seems to stop there. In the case of Sudan, the court did not hesitate to go all the way, and I would suspect if they had the evidence, they would have gone all the way as they did in Sudan.
AR: Is this one of the things you’re proudest of?
KA: The Kenyan situation was quite frightening. In a relatively short period, over 1,000 people were killed and 350,000 uprooted in a region that has had Rwanda and has had Somalia. And in a relatively short time, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda were affected economically because they rely on Kenyan infrastructure and there were shortages coming. So it was not just a national problem. It would have created a serious regional problem, and the international community worked very effectively with me and the panel of eminent persons and I think that the collective international effort was the only way. In fact, Roger Cohen of the New York Times [and] the International Herald Tribune did a piece referring to it as the first test of responsibility to protect, where political, diplomatic and economic pressure was used, short of military…
You go through various stages of pressure and then you use force as a last resort, and so from that point of view I was happy that the international community stood together, and, using political, diplomatic and economic pressure, was able to turn the tide and pull… get Kenyans to pull themselves back from the precipice.
Read Alec Russell’s FT Weekend Magazine feature on Kofi Annan here.