Interventions: Kofi Annan’s Life in War and Peace

“When national prestige is on the line, governments tend to take the casualties. If it’s a UN operation, everyone wants to withdraw.”


By Melissa Mayers

When Columbia Professor Richard K. Betts introduced Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, as “a man who needs no introduction” last Wednesday, Annan responded with a tale illustrating the fickle nature of celebrity.

On a trip to Lake Como, Italy, shortly after his retirement from the UN, Annan and his wife were walking to a local tobacconist to get a newspaper when they noticed a group of men staring from across the street. Annan said he panicked fearing that the location of their private getaway had been exposed.

“One of the fellows put his hand out and said, ‘Morgan Freeman! May I have an autograph?’” said Annan, drawing laughs from the audience. “So I said sure. I signed M. Freeman, he was happy; we kept our anonymity and continued our walk.”

Annan, 74,who has earned the respect and admiration of much of the world, is just as happily mistaken for someone else, even a movie star, if it means the return of a life outside of the spotlight.

Annan appeared at SIPA to speak about his new book, Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, and his long career in public service. His accomplishments are many: Fifty years of UN service, the last ten as Secretary-General, a Nobel Peace Prize, the creation of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the adoption of the UN’s first ever counter-terrorism strategy.

Asked why he wrote the memoir, Annan said, “[he] had the privilege of living through some unique experiences,” and felt it was important to share them with others.  Among those “unique experiences” was serving as head of UN Peacekeeping Operations during some of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history: Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Those were the experiences the audience wanted to hear about. The moderator, SIPA Professor Michael Doyle, who was also Annan’s assistant secretary-general and special adviser for policy planning, dove right in with a question about Rwanda: “How should we attribute the responsibilities for what happened…the international responsibilities and…the UN itself, including DPKO?”

Annan’s demeanor visibly changed. His soft-spoken voice became even quieter and his face showed a weary sadness. “It is extremely difficult for the general public to understand what goes on in the UN,” he began. “When we refer to the UN as ‘they’ and ‘it,’ you distance yourself. And yet the UN is all of us.”

The UN, Annan told an audience of Columbia students and professors, while not perfect, has done a lot of good for the world. “The UN is not perfect, we can improve,” he said.

“I need to reassure you that the men and women who work at the UN are not saints, we are not super-humans. We make mistakes, as others do.”

Annan admitted, in the period leading up to the Rwandan Genocide, the UN was media shy and officials rarely spoke to the press. “Maybe we should have used the press a bit more to raise awareness, to put the issue on the map. To get civil society involved in the pending massacre, or genocide, in Rwanda,” said Annan in a somber and reflective tone.

But he’s not certain if that would have helped.“I’m still not sure, given the mood immediately after Somalia, governments would have been willing to put in troops,” he mused. “In a way, Rwanda became a sort of a victim of Somalia.”

During the civil war in Somalia in the early nineties, when rebels prevented food aid from reaching those affected by famine and starving to death, U.S. soldiers were successful in opening up supply chains so that humanitarian aid could be distributed. But a turning point came in October 1993, when a U.S. helicopter was shot down and the bodies of American soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

“Some of you may have seen that from ‘Black Hawk Down,”Annan reminded the audience.When the Clinton administration decided to withdraw U.S. troops and transition the mission over to the UN, the entire mission collapsed as other western countries followed suite pulling out their own soldiers. The experience left Somalia in a state of lawlessness and the international community with a fear of intervening in internal conflicts. At this time, Annan explained,as the humanitarian catastrophe in Rwanda loomed,the lack of political will at the UN Security Council was evident.

Annan contrasted the international community’s failure to act in Rwanda with a more recent example. Thousands of U.S. soldiers have been killed and wounded in Afghanistan but “the U.S. is still there,“ said Annan in a veiled criticism of the U.S.’s politics of intervention. “When national prestige is on the line, governments tend to take the casualties. If it’s a UN operation, everyone wants to withdraw.”

Annan takes a level of shared responsibility with member states. “We’ve created the impression to the public that peacekeeping operations are risk-free operations,” he said.“Casualties are not to be expected [or] allowed.”

“What should be the threshold of violence for the international community to intervene?” asked Jacques Prévert Rumanyika, a second year MPA student from Rwanda. “I don’t think that we are going to be able to get a threshold,” said Annan to the disappointment of Rumanyika, who lost most of his family in the genocide.

“We are going to have to live with this dilemma. We are not going to be able to intervene everywhere. But does that mean that we shouldn’t intervene anywhere?”

Rumanyika doesn’t buy Annan’s explanation that “Rwanda was a victim of the crisis in Somalia.” He says the new narrative came about only “in the last five years or so.”

“No one cared,” Rumanyika said referring to the international community.“They basically said to us, you don’t matter.”

Annan’s uneasiness explaining Rwanda’s genocide illustrates how even the most distinguished career can be defined by one of its greatest failures.

Annan also commented on his brief stint earlier this year as the UN envoy in Syria. Referring to what the media had called “Annan’s Mission Impossible” following his resignation, Annan said, the mission faltered as quickly as it was forged. “I lost my team on the road to Damascus,” hesaid with a chuckle. “When I turned around, those who gave me the job were not there or were fighting each other. So I had to sort of let go of the assignment.”

Yet, Annan humbly reminded Columbia students, the future generation of policymakers, when we speak about tragic events like Rwanda or Syria we must remember our shared responsibility for keeping the promise: “Never Again.”

In the end, this may just be his greatest contribution of all.

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Melissa Mayers is a 2014 Master of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She is concentrating in International Security Policy and specializing in International Media, Advocacy and Communications.

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