Global Policy Forum

Annan Leaves a Mixed Legacy


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
January 2, 2007

When Kofi Annan completed his 10-year tenure as U.N. secretary-general on Dec. 31, he left behind a mixed political legacy: his acknowledged successes in promoting peace, development, gender empowerment and human rights, and his self-admitted failures in reining in a sprawling U.N. bureaucracy facing charges of mismanagement.

At his farewell press conference in mid-December, Annan specifically zeroed in on the multi-billion-dollar, now infamous oil-for-food programme in Iraq, which he said was "exploited to undermine the organisation." "But I think when historians look at the records, they will draw the conclusion that yes, there was mismanagement; (and) there may have been several U.N. staff members who were engaged" in unethical behaviour.

"But the scandal, if any, was in the capitals, and with the 2,200 companies that made a deal with (Iraqi President) Saddam (Hussein) behind our backs," he added. The "capitals" he blamed were primarily the political capitals of the 15 member states of the Security Council -- and specifically the five permanent members, namely the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia (P-5), under whose watchful eyes the notorious oil-for-food kickbacks took place.

Rightly or wrongly, Annan refused to concede that he should take the blame for the widespread corruption in a humanitarian programme aimed at alleviating the sufferings of sanctions-hit Iraqis.

Annan's successor Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, who took over as the new U.N. secretary-general on Jan.1, has described himself as "a man on a mission". "And my mission could be dubbed 'Operation Restore Trust': trust in the organisation; and trust between member states and the Secretariat," he told reporters in mid-December. With the creation of a new Ethics Office last year, Ban will be put to a test as to how best he will manage the U.N. bureaucracy, beginning with the appointments of competent senior officials and ending generations of political appointees to the higher echelons of the Secretariat by successive secretaries-general, including Annan.

"Annan's legacy is complex, and very badly understood," says Jim Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, one of the few non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that monitors the United Nations on a daily basis.

Annan must get credit for many things, he said. Firstly, he was a very effective public face for the United Nations, well spoken, and with much charm and quiet charisma. Second, he strengthened the diplomatic role of the office of the secretary-general through a large number of special envoys and representatives that have quietly solved or lessened serious crises, Paul pointed out. Third, he modernised the management of the United Nations in important ways, notably by developing a good reporting structure. "Fourth, he consistently pushed human rights to the fore. And fifth, he named a lot of really excellent people to top posts -- though his choices have, as always, been limited by political pressure from the P-5," Paul told IPS.

Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo of South Africa, the outgoing chairman of the 132-member Group of 77 developing nations, praised Annan pointing out that "one of the things Kofi did very well for developing countries is to turn the spotlight on issues that concerned us." "He was very, very firm on poverty eradication, on development, and on preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS," he said. Even though the United Nations itself did not do as much as it could, "the fact was that Kofi himself was able to do what he did by spotlighting the issues," Kumalo told IPS. "And being a son of Africa and the developing world also went a long way."

The critics who tried to cripple both Annan and the United Nations were mostly U.S. right-wing neo-conservatives and some of the mainstream newspapers in the United States. The vitriolic campaign against him began with a much-publicised radio interview in which Annan said that the U.S. war on Iraq was "illegal".

Paul said the huge furor over the oil-for-food programme "was obviously a propaganda offensive by Washington to undercut the United Nations, diminish Annan's stature, clear out virtually his whole team of top officials, and divert attention from the scandals and war in Iraq."

As U.S. Air Force cargo planes were transporting billions of oil-for-food dollars in cash to Baghdad -- cash that promptly disappeared without a trace -- "Washington was howling about the scandal of the century at the United Nations, a scandal that was limited to one official's malfeasance involving 160,000 dollars."

Annan told reporters last month: "I hope the historians will realise that the United Nations is more than oil-for-food." He said the United Nations "is the U.N. that coordinates tsunami [relief], the U.N. that deals with the Kashmir earthquake, the U.N. that is pushing for equality and fighting to implement the Millennium Development Goals, the U.N. that is fighting for human dignity and the rights of others, and all the other aspects."

Paul said that Annan managed relatively well the impossible task of keeping good relations with Washington and the other big powers while also representing the international community and the strictures of international law.

But Paul also pointed out other aspects of Annan's record that are more consistently troubling. "In order to court the United States, its big companies and big money interests, he made many trips to Washington and attended many events of New York's high society," Paul said. Annan also responded to pressure from the International Chamber of Commerce to set up the Global Compact, bringing transnational corporations to the United Nations as stakeholders for the first time in a weak effort to make them more responsible on human rights, the environment and labour rights, Paul noted. This initiative, which undercut other more effective efforts at the United Nations to increase corporate accountability, has been sharply criticised by NGOs as "blue wash".

Annan was strong on rhetoric and less strong on performance. He always spoke about the importance of women's rights, but he named very few women to high posts in the Secretariat and virtually none as his special diplomatic envoys, Paul added. Annan spoke about how indispensable NGOs are to the United Nations, but during his two terms security issues trumped NGO access and by the end, NGOs had far less physical access to U.N. headquarters and no longer had an official in the executive office looking out for their concerns.

Annan made serious mistakes, as when he bowed to U.S. Ambassador John Bolton's pressure to institute draconian management reforms and in the process seriously alienated the U.N. staff. "One of the sadder aspects of his term is that when he came into office he was loved and revered by the staff and when he left he was largely disliked within the house," Paul said.

However, Annan should be credited for having saved the United Nations from its almost lethal financial crisis in 1997, winning over the implacable U.S. Senator Jesse Helms in the process. "He dared to speak out on Iraq, even if it cost him dearly. He defended the United Nations and international law eloquently at a time when Washington, London and the major media were lined up as critics. For all his faults, he should be seen as a strong secretary-general who served the United Nations well," Paul added.



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