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Kofi Annan … A History of Many Wounds

Kofi Annan … A History of Many Wounds

Monday, 20 August, 2018 - 08:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
It is rare for a face to tell both the history of its owner and that of the world. Kofi Annan’s face was of that rare cloth. He bore the deep sadness from the African continent and carried with him a clear stubbornness in seeking a more humane and less brutal world. Annan passed away without retiring his will or sadness.

History likes to shed the spotlight on larger-than-life figures. Those who destroy their countries or neighbors. Annan’s biography was neither exciting nor loud. He did not lead a revolution or leave corpses in his wake. The only weapons he trained on was international legitimacy. This is a shiny and fragile weapon. It could help you at times and betray you at others.

When we first became journalists, we relished covering stories about brutal leaders. Emperor Bokassa and his obsession with Napoleon. The oddities of Idi Amin and his heavily medaled chest. The horrors of Mobutu Sese Seko, who ordered a waiter thrown to the crocodiles because he made an error when the president was hosting a French businessman on his yacht.

Annan was not born from the same cloth as these figures. He did not rise from military barracks or backrooms of deceit. He chose early on to pursue a path at the UN where he made a name for himself there for four decades.

His appointment as UN secretary general was like appointing a soldier to command the army. The man already new the place in detail. He new of the negotiations, jurisdictions, budget, bureaucracy and peacekeeping missions. He knew very well that the UN was strong when powerful figures lent it some of their clout through their consensus. He knew that the UN would be crippled when the Security Council would be turned into an arena to settle scores and for the veto to be wielded to hinder resolutions. He knew that the international organization could not impose its resolutions except through the force of powerful countries and sometimes with their armies. Major powers are not running a charity, but they operate according to a network of interests, not principles.

The UN secretary general is expected to be a strong swimmer against powerful waves. He should learn how to suppress the urge to make loud statements, which deprived Boutros Ghali of another term in office. The secretary general must always swim with the UN permanent members. He should also not neglect the suffering of smaller countries and that the UN was established for peoples, not just governments. At times of consensus, the swimmer would appear like the leader. At times of international tensions, he would appear like a confused mediator struggling to stay afloat.

Annan knew that establishing a world that was less dark demanded more than striking difficult agreements on difficult decisions. He realized the importance of raising international attention on development, education, economy and respecting human dignity and central rights. He also realized the importance of the UN shedding light on the environment and climate change. He showed great attention to bolstering the policy of building bridges between races, religions and sects and reaping the fruit of scientific, technological, human and cultural progress.

From his office at the UN, Annan saw that the world was being flung between two vicious storms. The first took place when al-Qaeda carried out the September 11 attacks in order to ignite a war between the West and Islamic world. It was not easy to contain the ire of the wounded American empire, whose symbols of success and prosperity were targeted. The second took place when the American military overthrew the Saddam Hussein regime without international consent. The patient diplomat had no choice but to declare such a step as illegal from the UN perspective.

The international divisions reminded the secretary general of the limits of his role when conflicts between major capitals raged. He was reminded of this when he tried to approach the volatile Syrian crisis in his role as UN and Arab League envoy, but was later left with no choice but to step down.

Throughout his long UN career, Annan was witness to many complicated crises, dangerous behaviors and wide-scale massacres. It is not easy for a UN secretary general or international envoy to admit the limits of international action and wash his hands clean of crises. This is why Annan was bitter. He had hoped that the UN could have succeeded in easing the suffering in Rwanda and Srebrenica. He had hoped that it would succeed in containing the Syrian slaughter and preventing Iraq from slipping into the abyss. The UN employee, who believes in peace, feels a sense of responsibility for his failure to avert the piling up of bodies in this country or that. He feels a sense of failure in curbing the flow of refugees and stopping the killing machines of governments or militias.

Annan will make a long and painful testimony when he stands before the trial of history. The catastrophes that erupted after the two above-mentioned storms waned were not easy to confront. Previous safety valves were no more and regional wolves were let loose from their dens. Nuclear dreams, long-range rockets and merciless interventions. The international scene always needs someone to deter others and to clip their claws. The UN secretary general, however, was destined to make do with doctors who helped spread the disease and rubbed salt in the wounds.

Annan was a major witness during a rich and dangerous period in the world. He passed away still bearing many wounds, including those inflicted by those questioning his integrity after his son was embroiled in deals linked to the Oil-for-Food Program in Iraq.

Annan’s death is a loss for the dreamers of a less brutal world.

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