I went to hear Kofi Annan speak yesterday in Manhattan at a Human Rights Watch event to mark International Human Rights day, coming up on December 10. “After ten years as secretary-general, he promises to speak his mind,” the organizers claimed. Not having heard him speak before, I don’t know if he spoke more of his mind than usual, but I thought he made some fairly blunt points for a sitting secretary-general.
In his introduction, Ken Roth, executive director at HRW, clearly promoted the narrative that Annan has been the “human rights” secretary-general. This even though as head of peacekeeping under Boutros Boutros (Boutros) Ghali, Annan presided over both Rwanda and Srebenica. In a new account of the Annan years reviewed by Stephen Schlesinger in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, James Traub
compliments Annan's calm in the midst of diplomatic tornadoes swirling around him as being almost "extraterrestrial." "There was something uncanny, even a bit weird," Traub writes, "about the perfect equipoise [Annan] maintained in all settings."
He was calm, unflappable, possessed of a serenity I associate with Mormon leaders of my youth who had complete inner assurance of the truth of their message. Not elected in the way most politicians are, he displayed few traits common to them—he was soft-spoken and very low-key. He managed to maintain a relentlessly positive outlook while describing dire situations in many parts of the world.
In his prepared remarks, he worried that the world might not be any better off than it was ten years ago with regard to advancement of human rights by intergovernmental organizations like the UN. He urged that national sovereignty not be considered sacrosanct in cases of dire threats to human rights—an obvious reference to Darfur. He rejected the claim that peace must come before justice in societies recovering from conflict. He called for anti-terror programs to be built on human rights, and rejected the need for secret prisons and “ghost detainees” kept away from Red Cross workers—a clear rebuke to current U.S. policies. He characterized human rights as individual rights, and emphasized that individuals may have multiple or shifting identities and cannot easily be pigeonholed—reminiscent of Amartya Sen’s recent work on identity and armed conflict.
He then answered questions from a panel of human rights practitioners from around the world: Argentina, Kenya, Russia, Egypt, and South Africa. He sat patiently as Ann Njogu from Kenya berated him for what seemed like forever, asking again and again when Africans could expect to see results from all this talk about human rights. He responded diplomatically that yes, there are many problems and difficulties, but we should not focus too harshly on the gap between principle and action. To me his answer rang a bit hollow. He also said that African women didn’t know the power of their numbers—I didn’t know quite how to interpret that. I don’t see much use in laying the blame for Africa’s problems at the feet of African women for being politically marginalized.
Tanya Lokshina posited that the rest of the world was ignoring rampant human rights abuses by Russian security forces in Chechnya in order not to upset the Russian government. Annan responded that the Security Council has accepted Russia’s claim that the Chechen conflict is an internal matter. He asked whether the UN could apply its principles fairly across the board or whether principles were applied differently depending on how powerful the country under scrutiny was. “I think we all know the answer,” he said. I took that to mean that the rule of law has little meaning in the context of the Security Council.
After the panel, Annan took questions from the press. Someone asked him if he felt vindicated on Iraq. He managed not to gloat. The conventional wisdom, as expressed in the Traub book on Annan’s tenure, has been that he started out with several successes during the Clinton years and then faced a series of setbacks during the Bush years, Iraq being principal among them. Schlesinger writes:
Bush's . . . decision to invade Iraq in defiance of the UN came as a sharp rebuke to the organization. It was also a shattering personal experience for Annan. Traub writes that as he saw the UN pushed aside in Iraq, Annan "suffered a kind of slow-motion collapse." He retreated to his New York residence, started taking antidepressants, and even temporarily lost his ability to speak.It seems clear by now that history will be kinder to Annan than to Bush on the issue of Iraq, and probably on many other issues as well (the International Criminal Court and human rights, to name two).
One journalist asked what the impact has been of the US’s relinquishment of its traditional leadership role in the area of human rights. Annan said this had an impact on the negotiations for the new UN Human Rights Council. Given his previous admission that the Council had not yet lived up to expectations, one could surmise that he thinks the US is to blame to some degree for the failure of the Council thus far to do anything meaningful. But he said he interpreted the US’s decision not to seek a seat on the Council as a “soft no” rather than a “hard no” (meaning the US would not participate but would also not stand in the way of the Council's work) and he held out hope that the US would support the Council in the future.
Someone asked him whether his experience presiding over Rwanda affected his views on state sovereignty and the need for intervention. He said that the governments that failed to act were to blame—many of them knew more about the genocide as it was occurring than did the UN, and even if they didn’t know the full extent of it, as some countries claimed, when they found out, their first (and for many, only) action was to send in troops and planes to evacuate their own nationals. It was clearly a sensitive subject for Annan, but it is also the height of hypocrisy for nations that failed to act during the slaughter to blame the UN for their own very calculated inaction.
It is hard to overstate the calm assurance that Annan projected. He was never caught without an articulate answer. His comments were permeated by a contagious optimism. It is too bad that his goals—and the goals of human rights advocates around the world—have been largely hamstrung by the US reaction to 9/11. I believe that he leaves office with the international stature of a Clinton or a Mandela. I look forward to good things from Kofi Annan as he moves into the private sector.