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Kofi Annan and the UN

By John Langmore - posted Friday, 5 January 2007

After a decade as Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan retired on December 31. It is therefore timely to review his decade as the world’s leading diplomat.

One of my responsibilities when Director of the UN Division for Social Policy and Development was to organise conferences, two of which were the Second World Assembly of Youth which was held in Porto, Portugal and immediately following it the first International Meeting of Youth Ministers held in Lisbon.

As UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan was invited to close the Youth Assembly and next day to open the Youth Ministers’ meeting. As is not uncommon, there was a major international crisis a couple of days before he was due to speak to the youth. His staff told us that they were advising him not to travel and so we made alternative plans.


Yet despite the pressure he flew overnight from New York, arrived at the closing ceremony on schedule at 10am and was given a thunderous standing ovation by the youth delegates. He started his speech by explaining that he regarded youth as so vitally important that he was determined to demonstrate his support for their planning. He emphasised that they were leaders already as well as leaders of tomorrow.

The youth were awed and proud to be able to hand to him the resolution about which they had argued, negotiated and on which they had finally agreed during the early hours of the morning and which included their recommendations. Despite his tiredness, Kofi Annan’s grace shone through his words and the warmth with which he talked with the youth.

During 20 years of political engagement in Australia and seven at the UN in New York I have never met a more gracious person in public life. He is extraordinarily dedicated, attentive to those he meets, administratively tough, a talented diplomat, and careful, thoughtful and wise in his public statements. Kofi Annan has been one of the most outstanding Secretary-Generals of the UN.

Why then has he been so vilified? The reason is simple: the Bush administration, the neo-conservatives who direct it, the American right-wingers who support it and their international allies were affronted by the opposition of most countries to their invasion of Iraq. The US and Britain were unable to persuade a majority of Security Council members of the necessity for an attack.

We all know that during the occupation it quickly became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so that the rationale for the hugely destructive, destabilising military action did not exist. The assessment of the majority of nations and peoples, including Australians, was correct.

As leader of the whole membership of the UN, Kofi Annan expressed this opposition and did so carefully. Yet supporters of the invasion made him the target of their hostility. They also thought that inefficiencies and dishonesties in the Oil-for-Food program offered a weapon for their condemnation. Yet the exhaustive Volcker inquiry found no evidence of corruption by the Secretary-General. They did find misjudgment by his adult son, but no evidence that this was known about or condoned by Kofi Annan. Two of the senior staff of the program were thought to have been corrupt but even that has yet to be proven.


On the other hand, 2,000 corporations bribed Saddam Hussein’s apparatchiks, the largest offender being the AWB which paid close to $300 million to manipulate wheat sales. The UN Security Council set clear guidelines, the AWB circumvented them and the Howard Government ministers failed to enforce them.

There are lessons for UN managers in this, one of which is that more rigorous administration of programs is required. It is extraordinarily disappointing that a country like Australia which previously had a reputation for honesty will now have to be treated as untrustworthy.

The invasion of Iraq by the US with the support of the Blair and Howard Governments but without the agreement of the Security Council involved rejection of multilateral norms. Do other countries now have the right to attack another when they believe that it might become a threat? Have international relations reverted to pre-UN disorder? Or was the invasion of Iraq an aberration from which lessons can be learnt and changes made which can maintain and enhance the principles of collective security?

Kofi Annan tried to address these difficult questions by commissioning a report from high level experts. He adopted many of their recommendations, added others and proposed them to the global Summit held in New York in September 2005. While some were agreed, the continuing hostility of the US and a few close allies prevented any progress on means of containing what the UN Charter calls “the scourge of war”.

The election of Ban Ki-Moon as Secretary-General will offer an opportunity for all participants to leave at least some of the conflicts and resentments behind. Mr Ban’s experience as South Korea’s foreign minister and life as a professional diplomat will be invaluable in “the most difficult job in the world”.

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Adapted from an article first published in The Sunday Age on December 24, 2006.

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About the Author

John Langmore, a former MP and Director at the UN, is now a Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and National President of the UN Association of Australia.

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