His role requires a brilliant mind and a cool head. But how does the Secretary General of the United Nations stay sane in a world gone mad?
Saga Magazine, November, 2002
The eye of the storm is always said to be a place of calm. It is therefore appropriate that the calmest man you could possibly imagine is at the centre of the turmoil that is international affairs today.
Kofi Annan is a slim, dignified, soft-spoken and self-possessed Ghanaian. He is Secretary General of the United Nations. He has been called the world�s "secular pope". He may not be the master of the universe, but he is certainly its coolest conductor.
Over the past eight years I have seen Annan in action in many places – including the Balkans, the United States, the Middle East, and many parts of Africa. Wherever he has been, the problems of the world have been flung at him, almost as if the world were willing him to be the magician who can solve each and every ill. In an interview for Saga magazine I asked him how he deals with the everlasting strain. He smiled and said, "Inner laughter helps. In order not to be consumed by it, I have to approach difficult problems with a healthy detachment. Otherwise you could be consumed by issues and lose your bearings, which is not good for the team, for the ship."
Annan has been Secretary General since the end of 1996. Last year, at the end of his first five-year term, he was forced – by the acclaim of the world – to accept a second. That�s 10 long years presiding over and trying to solve the world�s most intractable crises. The pressures on him daily, sometimes hourly, are immense. During his first six years those crises have never seemed to stop coming – the bombing of Iraq in 1998, the NATO assault to liberate Kosovo from Yugoslavia, the terror in East Timor and then its liberation, the protracted, grinding, unseen wars in many parts of Africa.
His second term has already seen the terrorist assault on the World Trade Centre, the consequent attack on Afghanistan and now the growing drumbeat of war against Iraq. These are just a few of the urgent crises he has dealt with – there are also slow-burn ones, like the spread of HIV/Aids in Africa, Russia, China (to name but a few of the areas hardest hit), which occupy his mind.
Annan was born in Ghana in 1938. His mother was from the Fante tribe on the Cape Coast of Ghana and his father was half Fante, half Ashanti; Annan could have become a chief of either tribe. In the last days of the British empire, his father was in business, a manager in a Lever Brothers subsidiary and a leading Freemason. Among the lessons he taught his son was the importance of punctuality. On international trips, Annan is never late and never waits; I always make sure I am in the convoy of cars before he comes downstairs. On one trip in Africa, a tardy photographer was left behind and had to catch us up in the next country.
I asked Annan what lessons his parents had taught him. "Their insistence on character," he said. "They thought that character was extremely important and one has to be able to make a judgment of what is right and wrong and stand by that. Perhaps I also got out of them the sense of responsibility to help less fortunate people." Young Kofi was taught in British-run Christian schools and he remains a believer to this day. "We studied perhaps more about the British Isles than our neighbouring African countries." He remembers the excitement of the Queen�s coronation in 1953. "We all gathered around the radio and listened to it on the BBC. The newspapers were full of the young Queen taking over from her father and there was quite a lot of celebration then, even though the independence struggle was going on – peacefully, fortunately." He is a great admirer of the Queen and says that her serenity and sense of humour have made her an excellent head of the Commonwealth.
He won a scholarship to a college in Minnesota, where he encountered snow for the first time. His friends advised him to wear ear muffs and at first he refused, thinking they were rather ridiculous. "After I nearly froze my ears off I realised they were right – it was an early lesson in taking local knowledge seriously."
Then, when an expected commercial job fell through, he began to work with the World Health Organisation in Geneva. He has been an international civil servant ever since, except for a short break in the Seventies when he ran the tourist authority in Ghana. But he did not enjoy working with the military who then ruled Ghana, and he went back to the UN. "I had expected," he said once, "to go into Ghanaian politics, retire to a farm at 60, and die in my bed at 80. It did not happen so. It�s one of the things God does."
I first met him in the early Nineties in former Yugoslavia; he had by then risen to be the head of UN peacekeeping and was preoccupied with the war in Bosnia. I thought at once that he was a very unusual and interesting man. He had an extraordinary gift of persuasiveness, coupled to a mischievous sense of fun. He did not seem like someone who had spent his life in a tortuous bureaucracy.
During this period two of the UN�s greatest disasters occurred on his peacekeeping watch; the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which up to 800,000 people were murdered in 90 days, and the massacre in Srebrenica in July 1995, when Serb soldiers murdered some 7,000 Muslim men and boys supposedly under the protection of the UN. Annan rang about 100 countries, asking them to send troops to Rwanda to help stop the genocide – none would agree. He and other UN officials were against designating Srebrenica and other enclaves as "Safe Areas" unless they had many more troops to defend them. The Security Council overruled him.
Then, in 1996, to Annan�s surprise, he was elected Secretary General after the United States decided to get rid of Boutros Boutros Ghali, the Egyptian holder of the office, who had become increasingly unpopular in the USA. Annan and his second wife, Nane, a Swedish lawyer and painter, met while both were working for the UN in Geneva; between them they have three children by their first marriages and one grandson. They have had to surrender their anonymity for the glare of one of the most high-profile jobs in the world. Since his appointment each of them has grown and blossomed. They are an extraordinarily attractive couple, engaged with each other as well as the world. Annan knows that the UN, like the Pope, has no divisions of its own. It is only as good and as effective as its members (especially the Security Council, its cabinet) wish it to be. The lack of an adequate number of troops in Rwanda and Srebrenica is one example. After he became Secretary General, Annan commissioned detailed and very critical reports on those two disasters; these have contributed to a new culture of openness at the UN. Nonetheless, some people still criticise him for having been unable to do more at the time.
His job – not easy at the best of times – is to try to persuade the member states to act together, wisely and well. On such contentious issues as the Israeli-Palestine conflict or Iraq he is subject to conflicting pressures from member states. An old joke holds that his job is neither Secretary nor General. Annan has tried to lead as a General on many moral or general issues. But in specific crises where the great powers have distinct interests he has to remember that they see him much more as a Secretary.
He believes that the growing disparity between the rich and poor of the world is a disaster that will lead to more terrorist outrages. His goals for the new millennium include reducing by half the number of people living on less than a dollar a day. He has tried to engage business in the work of the UN in a way that no Secretary General before him did. He says that Western governments and businesses must give more hope to the billions of people struggling in poverty. If not, the world risks the collapse of poor nations into conflict and anarchy in which they become "a menace to their neighbours and potentially, as the events of September 11 so brutally reminded us, a threat to global security". But he also knows that just pouring aid at problems is not always a solution and he has criticised the corruption and mismanagement of many countries, especially in his own continent of Africa.
He understands that the support of the world�s only superpower, America, is vital to the UN. In his early years he used all his powers of persuasion in Washington to transform the hostility of the USA into first grudging and then genuine support. Seduced by his gentle rhetoric, Washington has finally paid its long overdue bills, and George Bush has recently praised him effusively. Other US officials have called him the best Secretary General yet.
Annan has tried to restore hope within the UN and to the millions of people all over the world who look to the UN for succour and solutions. But his powers are limited. Expectations of him often outrun the reality of what his job allows him to do. He is constantly frustrated by his inability to change the way the world works more quickly and radically.
I asked him what were the most frustrating things for him. "One is the knowledge that we could do so much more," he said. "In health, underdevelopment or even the protection of the planet, we do have the knowledge, the resources, the technology to tackle the problems – but somehow we are never able to muster the will. We keep wondering what it will take, and what should be done; too often we fail to tackle things in a sustained manner. But one cannot become so frustrated that one gives up. You cannot give up hope." Aids is one of those problems. Annan constantly insists that the epidemic is not just a health problem – it is a security issue. In some African countries there are now not enough able-bodied people to bring in the crops. Yet the nations of the world are still reluctant to commit the resources needed to address the scale of the horror.
Last year Annan and the United Nations were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I travelled with him to Oslo for the presentation of the prize last December. His speech then seems even more apposite now, especially after the horrific bombing in Bali. He said that on September 11 we had entered the third millennium through "a gate of fire".
"New threats make no distinction between races, nations or regions. A new insecurity has entered every mind, regardless of wealth or status."
He thought that the UN�s mission in the 21st century would be to concentrate on the "sanctity and dignity of every human life" and that this would mean looking �beyond the framework of states�. He insisted that sovereignty "must no longer be used as a shield for gross violations of human rights".
The King of Norway invited the guests, who included many former peace-prize winners, like David Trimble, John Hume and Desmond Tutu, back to a reception at his simple but rather lovely palace situated on a hill. The afternoon light was fading and the palace was beautifully lit by hundreds of candles – it was an exquisitely peaceful occasion.
Earlier this year I watched Annan in the ruins of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, where the international community is now attempting (with inadequate resources) to rebuild the shattered country. It was clear from the public meeting he held that people were grateful for the liberation from the Taliban regime – but much more help was needed. "Security, security, security" people said, over and over. "I hear you," replied Annan.
Annan says: "It was the international community�s shameful neglect of Afghanistan in the 1990s that allowed the country to slide into chaos, providing a fertile breeding ground for al-Qaeda. The new government must be helped to extend its authority throughout the country, and the donors must follow through on their commitments to help with rehabilitation, reconstruction and development." But as so often, the world fails to meet its own rhetoric – the pledges made to Afghanistan only a few months ago are now gathering dust and security in the country is deteriorating again.
Iraq is now the major bone of contention. Indeed, we now face war. Some background is needed. After the allied forces expelled the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait in 1991, Iraq agreed to surrender all the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction that it was known to be making. Iraq was required to co-operate with intrusive UN inspection teams which were to find and destroy all these arms. Until the UN certified that Iraq was free of them, an international embargo and sanctions would remain in place.
Over the next seven years, the UN inspectors did a fantastic job – a mixture of Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones – finding and destroying tons of weapons, dozens of missiles, vats of poison and much more besides. The problem was that, far from co-operating, Saddam Hussein�s men did a great deal to frustrate the searches. The difficulty is, Saddam wants to keep those weapons; one of his ministers once said, "We need them against the Persians and the Jews."
By early 1998, the inspectors knew that there was still much more hidden, but Saddam was refusing to co-operate with them. America and Britain were threatening to bomb the country to punish Saddam. The rest of the world turned to Annan; from the Pope downwards, everyone begged him to fly to Baghdad to find a way to stave off war. He did so, saying it was his �sacred duty� to try to find a solution.
He met Saddam. It was an extraordinary symbolic encounter between the forces of good and evil – the African representing hope and such civilised standards as the world has been able to devise, the Arab almost a comic-book dictator, who had forced his way to power by murder and maintained himself there by murder.
Annan flattered Saddam as the "builder" of Iraq and calmly persuaded him to accept a compromise on inspections. But Washington was furious, believing that the deal weakened an already weak hand. Within days Saddam reneged on his promises to Annan; relations with the inspectors deteriorated again and at the end of 1998 the USA and Britain embarked on a short, sharp, punitive bombing campaign. Since then the inspectors have not been back, intermittent bombing has continued, but there has been no one to check how Saddam has been restoring his terrifying weapons. The danger is that he is doing quite well, thank you, and that barrels and barrels of hideous chemical and biological weapons are hidden all over Iraq.
Until the Twin Towers were destroyed, Washington was prepared to live with that danger. No longer. In the past few months President Bush and his cabinet have been ratcheting up the rhetoric against Saddam and insisting not only that he must disarm in accordance with UN resolutions, but that his regime must be "changed".
There has been a massive build-up of American military force in the Middle East. On September 12 this year, President Bush addressed the UN, challenging it to show that it could be effective by enforcing its own resolutions against Iraq – or be consigned to the dustbin of history.
For Annan, as well as the UN, this is a crucial test. He says, "For the UN the issue is disarmament. Regime change is not our policy". How could it be? The UN is a membership organisation – its members are the world�s 190 different states. They are all very nervous at the idea of diminishing the power of sovereign governments to behave as they wish within their own frontiers – a right that Annan is constantly trying to chip away.
There is no let-up in this job. Occasionally he gets a few days off to go walking with his wife. But never for long enough. Remarkably, the relentless strain doesn�t show too much. And perhaps that�s his secret. For the UN to survive it has to persuade people that it offers hope amid all the world�s turmoil; and fortunately Annan is by nature an optimist.