The Peacekeeper's Dilemma: Kofi Annan Believed in the UN, but Recognized Its Limitations

Despite his diplomatic skills and quiet charisma, the late Annan's decade as UN secretary-general was overshadowed by the contradiction that lay at the heart of his doctrine

Then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrives at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, August 29, 2006.
AP

Not many people are allowed a second chance in life to fix the mistakes they made in their career on the most prominent international platform.

Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who died on Saturday at 80, was the first and so far only secretary-general to have risen from the UN’s ranks. He owed his 1997 appointment to political circumstances. The Clinton administration was determined to get rid of then-Egyptian Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali due to his anti-American speeches. But the U.S. needed to mollify the African nations, who were up in arms at the first secretary-general from their continent not being allowed to serve the customary second term. An alternative African candidate was called for. Under-Secretary Annan, a native of Ghana, was in the right place at the right time.

Annan’s unexpected promotions gave him the opportunity to try and draw the lessons from the string of massacres that took place while he was in charge of the UN’s peace-keeping forces across the globe. The civil war in Somalia, including the deaths of U.S. and UN troops in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu; the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, during which nearly one million Tutsi were hacked to death; and the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995. In every case, serious criticism was leveled against Annan’s office, the way it had guided the UN peace-keeping forces and the information that was relayed back from the field by Annan to the UN Security Council.

The full version of events is unclear to this day, and the controversy over what Annan and his team could have done – if anything – to prevent, or at least limit, the bloodshed. “They didn’t fulfill the mission as was expected of them,” says Dr. Efrat Elron, a researcher specializing in multi-national forces. “But the forces’ mandate was from the beginning very limited and the UN commander in the field could only play a minor role. As a rule, multi-national peace-keeping forces sent by the UN can do much less than a force sent by NATO, for example, where there are less nations with conflicting agendas involved and there is a clearer Western policy. But Annan deserves credit for having improved and upgraded the UN’s forces, within the realms of what was possible.”

Upon becoming the secretary-general, Annan began promoting a new concept of the international community’s responsibility to prevent genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. This concept was already at the base of NATO's 1999 intervention in Kosovo, where the Western alliance had bombed the Serbian army to protect the Kosovars. This put Annan in a difficult position: He was in favor of the intervention, but as UN Sectary General he had to oppose them because they had not received the approval of the Security Council. Approval would not be forthcoming due to Serb-supporting Russia’s veto.

Annan’s dilemma – between legitimate actions to save thousands of lives and the need for international legitimacy for intervention – would remain the contradiction at the heart of his doctrine.

Then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a meeting in Annan's office, March 5, 1997.
Richard Drew,AP

Despite his diplomatic skills and quiet charisma, his decade as secretary-general would be overshadowed by his failure to prevent the U.S. and its allies from invading Iraq in 2003 with the intention of preventing Saddam Hussein from achieving weapons of mass destruction – without the Security Council’s approval. He would later call it “my darkest hour.”

Two years later, Annan succeeded in pulling off what would be his crowning achievement, the unanimous support of UN members for the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” – the consensus that every nation is committed to prevent in its territory genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that the international community has a corresponding responsibility to protect. It did not, however, specify the cases in which other nations can intervene when the responsibility to protect is not upheld. Despite this, the concept would go on to be used by the Security Council to justify sending peace-keeping forces to war zones and expanding their mandate.

But ultimately, Annan’s "responsibility to protect" doctrine would be dependent on the world powers' good will. In 2011, after Annan retired, the doctrine would be at the base of the Security Council’s decision to allow a coalition of Western and Arab countries to intervene in the Libyan civil war, bombing Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces from the air to protect the civilian population. But the Security Council’s resolution eventually also led to their intervention in toppling the Gaddafi regime, which wasn’t followed up by a coordinated process to rebuild Libyan society

The next year, Annan was summoned back into service as the special envoy of the UN and Arab League in the hope of ending the Syrian war. But he resigned only six months later, saying that “as an envoy, I can't want peace more than the protagonists, more than the Security Council or the international community for that matter.”

“Kofi Annan is one of the most important symbols of the improvement of the UN’s standing from the start of the 21st century due to his attempts to advance a clear doctrine of international intervention that is meant to extend also humanitarian assistance, to protect civilians and to rebuild nations with an emphasis on democracy,” says Dr. Chen Kertcher, a historian who specializes in the UN and conflict resolution. “But he came from the UN and understood the organization’s limitations and that ultimately, peace is made by nations and powers. The UN can only help facilitate. But the fact that humanitarian intervention is even an option for the Security Council today is thanks to Annan.” 

One conflict in which Annan was relatively less involved was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this case, too, Annan was aware of the UN’s limitations and preferred instead to encourage the major powers to be more involved. The fact that he wasn't a major player in this arena is probably the reason Israeli governments saw him as less “hostile” and both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem issued statements of condolence. The Foreign Ministry emphasized that “During his term, Annan opposed attempts to delegitimize Israel, fought strongly against Holocaust denial and supported the 2006 UN initiative for Holocaust Memorial Day.”

What was less comfortable to mention were the times Annan was quick to blame Israel for the deaths of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, as well as Israel’s criticism of the UNIFIL force in southern Lebanon, which had allowed Hezbollah to operate freely within clear sight of its outposts. Annan tried to hide from Israel the reports of a UNIFIL observation post that had watched as Hezbollah killed and snatched the bodies of three Israeli soldiers in 2000. Six years later, Annan described an incident in which an Israeli airstrike targeting a Hezbollah position killed four UNIFIL observers as “seeming intentional.”

Then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan speaks after meeting former U.S. President Bill Clinton, White House, Washington, January 23, 1997.
\ Rick Wilking/ REUTERS

“It should be said in Annan’s favor that when the Second Lebanon war began, he immediately blamed Hezbollah,” says Dr. Kertcher. “Only later, when hundreds of Lebanese civilians had been killed, did he blame Israel. He would balance a support for Israel’s right to defend itself with the responsibility to protect civilian lives.” 

The last op-ed Annan wrote (for the Financial Times two-and-a-half weeks ago) was dedicated to the moribund diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians and was addressed to U.S. President Donald Trump. “Today there is scant evidence in the Knesset, the Palestinian Authority or the Hamas leadership of the courage needed to grasp the political nettle and work for the common good,” he wrote. Until the very end, Annan stuck to his belief that there is only so much the international community can do and that ultimately, only world powers can bring peace.