By Danny Bradlow, SARCHI Professor of International Development Law and African Economic Relations, University of Pretoria, South Africa.
Kofi Annan (80 years old) was an important historical figure who played a critical role in many key events of the 1990s and 2000s. His death is therefore an opportunity to both celebrate his life and to begin honestly assessing his contributions to the world.
The Ghanaian diplomat’s legacy is complicated. He served as both head of the United Nations peacekeeping and as secretary general of the UN. His tenure in these high offices – from 1992 to 2006 – were marked by great human tragedies as well as episodes of progress. His role in these events raises difficult questions about individual responsibility and the role of international organisations and their leaders in creating a more peaceful and just world.
On the plus side, his contributions were impressive. He was an effective diplomat, a shrewd negotiator and an intelligent strategist. He was such a successful bureaucratic operator that he was the first UN employee to rise to the position of secretary general.
When he took over the organisation it was facing numerous challenges. They included a tense and often hostile relationship with its most powerful member state, the US, a difficult budgetary situation and what appeared to be an inability to fulfil its core peacekeeping, human rights and development functions.
By the end of his term, things looked very different. Relations with key member countries had been restored, the UN had a sound fiscal position and both he and the organisation had won the Nobel Peace Prize.
In addition, the organisation had launched some important new initiatives. It had adopted the Millenium Development Goals, which contributed to significant gains in health, education and human welfare in many countries around the world. The initiative was so successful that it was succeeded by the even more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals.
In addition, the international community had established the International Criminal Court and had begun prosecuting war criminals for their deeds in the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
He had also initiated the process of getting corporations to recognise and accept their responsibility for the environmental, social and human rights consequences of their activities. This process moved slowly. But his efforts ultimately led to the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsing the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011. These have now been incorporated into the human rights policies of many companies and have led to a number of countries adopting national action plans on the human rights responsibilities of business.
After he left the UN, Annan continued to do good work with both the Elders, a group of global leaders working for peace and human rights, and his own foundation. In these capacities he had some notable achievements. He helped resolve the post-election violence in Kenya, helped ensure peaceful elections in Nigeria and a number of other countries, and helped promote more productive and sustainable agriculture and good governance across Africa. He also tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to end the civil war in Syria and the campaign against the Rohingyas in Myanmar.
But there’s also a darker side to Annan’s record.
Annan was the head of UN Peacekeeping operations in the 1990s when two of the biggest failures in UN history happened. Under his watch both the Rwandan genocide and the massacres in Srebrenica took place.
In both cases his commanders on the ground requested authority to take stronger action to limit the risk of tragedy to those under their protection. In both cases he declined their request – with tragic results.
In addition, under his leadership UN peacekeepers in a range of countries, including Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, were found to be sexually exploiting those they were charged to protect. The UN failed to respond promptly to these actions and they continued into the 2000s.
In most organisations, a leader who is responsible for such profound failures would be held accountable. If not fired, or forced to resign, they would at the very least be moved to a position of lesser authority. But this didn’t happen because the UN has poor mechanisms and a weak culture of accountability. In fact, the UN and its member states, decided to promote Annan, selecting him to replace the first African secretary general, Boutros Boutros Ghali, who was deemed to be too independent minded by the US.
Annan continued relying on the UN’s lack of accountability once he was in office. His son was implicated in the infamously corrupt food-for-oil programme that was initiated to help the Iraqi population during the period of sanctions against Saddam Hussein.
Eventually, under pressure, he appointed the independent Volcker Commission to investigate the programme. It concluded that, although Annan himself was not guilty of any wrongdoing, his actions in response to the abuses were inadequate, including that he had failed to refer the matter to the UN’s independent watchdog agency.
He also tolerated sexual harassment within the UN Secretariat, protecting the former head of the UN refugee agency when he was accused of sexual harassment, penalising his accuser and then relying on the UN’s legal immunity to avoid having to respond to her efforts to seek justice. The adverse publicity eventually forced the guilty official to resign.
There is no doubt that running a complex international institution like the UN is difficult and requires leaders who are willing to compromise. Given the secretary general’s weak position, it may also be inevitable that its leaders will have to turn a blind eye to some acts and omissions that have tragic and possibly evil consequences in order to advance higher priorities.
Annan showed throughout his career that he was a master at playing this game. As a result, his record includes both some impressive achievements and some profound failures. It will be up to history to decide if he made the right choices and struck the correct balance between doing good and tolerating evil.
In the meanwhile, we should all draw lessons from the life of this important historical figure about the importance of holding leaders and the institutions that govern our world accountable for their actions and decisions.
Houston, April 2, 2009: April 7 is the 15th anniversary of the 1994 Rwanda genocide by the same country’s Hutu zealots who viciously set upon Rwanda’s 1 million Tutsis for the most brutal decimation of an ethnic group within 100 hours in Africa and the world.
On Wednesday April 7, 2004, Rwandan President Paul Kagame specifically named Belgium, Britain and the United States for withdrawing their forces when Rwandans needed them, asserting that: “Injustice of powerful nations should be stopped. Rwanda should be a good example to learn a lesson.”
The first, key lesson of the Rwanda genocide is that moral and courageous leadership serve our collective and singular moral interests. Kagame’s view dovetails with the words of the civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. in his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963) arguing that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Also, later the holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel in his book ‘Un die welt hot geshvign (And the World Kept Silent)’ later updated as ‘Night’, wrote: “Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must- at that moment- become the center of the universe.”
Biafra. Rwanda. Darfur, and other geopolitical zones of killings and human tragedy are reminders of past and continuing centers of the universe.
Reflecting on the crises of 1994, Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the UN commander whose call for reinforcements was ignored said recently: “The international community didn’t give one damn for Rwandans because Rwanda was a country of no strategic importance.” Bill Clinton was the president of the United States at the time.
The second lesson of the Rwanda Hutu-imposed genocide is that we have all seen the face of evil; sometimes, they reside among us. The Rwanda genocide is still fresh as the zone where next door neighbors and teenagers used knives and machettes and dane guns and assault rifles to kill those they played soccer with and fetched water from the same stream only a few hours earlier. Hutus set Tutsi houses on fire to destroy the lives of those who sang and played at the church churches and village squares.
The slaughter of women and children and all moving objects with any and all available weapons marked a new low in the depravity of malice and prejudice. The Rwandans have been for decades almost 92% christians (57% Catholic). There are almost 10 million Rwandans. Demographically, the Hutus (Bantu) form 84% of the population while the endangered Tutsis (Hamitic) constitute only 13%. There are the Twas (Pygmy) who form 1.4%
A third lesson of the domestic slaughter in 1994 in Rwanda is the highlight of the wider bloody history of annual violent bigotry inside Africa by Africans, what I call Africans-on- Africans- violence. They remind me of an interview the Voice of America (VOA) international service on September 11, 2002 where I said that: “The armies of bigotry, and murderous hatefulness have left a very severe and deadly impact on Africa.” Those armies, to be sure, are both external and local.
Which leads to the fourth lesson; a question: when will the blame everything on the “white man-white person” and “colonialists and colonialism” think beyond the instinct to hold external factors entirely responsible for the continent’s problems? I must note, frankly, that for all the divide and conquer and arbitrary mapping and lumping of dissimilar ethnic nationalities into awkward countries, for all the despoliation and degradation and exploitation of our African continent, “White people” did not compel the Hutus to express such primitive, medieval hateful, mechanized malice against their compatriots, the Tutsis.
The fifth lesson of the Rwanda genocide reveals the nakedness of one of the dirty secrets of African leaderships over the past 60 years: the weak-kneed clause of “non-interference” into the “sovereign” issues in other “member states” of the defunct organization of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union. They strive to protect their priviledged ponds of opulence and umbrellas of dictatorship and autocracy.
It is important to note that long before 1994 Rwanda, it is to the eternal credit of the late, great sage and President of Tanzania, Dr. Julius Nyerere that he tore the veil off the tawdry non-interference/ sovereignty in the face of human catastrophe when he interfered progressively against Nigeria’s starvation policies against then Biafrans (Igbos, Anangs, Efiks, and 13 million other south eastern Nigerians during their 1967-1970 war for survival and independence from the rest of Nigeria).
After Biafra, Nyerere stood up against the dictator Idi Amin of Uganda in 1979, forcing Amin’s regime to fall.
The sixth lesson derives from another question: long before and 15 years after the bloody genocide in Rwanda, millions of people still wonder when the looters and dealers masquerading as African leaders will be responsive and sensitive to providing the basic, fundamental justification for the creation of these countries/nations/ states?
Why are Africans and other parts of the world held in some of these corrupt cages, sorry countries, by very corrupt leaders?
Who would have believed that for all his sanctimonious animations, holier-than- thou dramatics and posturing as Nigeria’s morality high-priest, retired Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, the country’s two-time president reportedly collected several rounds of cash/bribe from the Halliburton squad?
The seventh lesson demands that the problems are not 100% local. Political economy fact is that the Western world and colonialist Europe, especially, have some responsibility for sowing the festering seeds to some of these problems by cobbling ethnic nations arbitrarily. Some of the countries have been hampered through neocolonialist financial structures and wealth transfers, predatory actions which fuel their collapse as another of bankrupt African economies and geo-politically failed states.
The eight lesson is that humankind overcomes evil, over time. Today, Rwandans are healing and rebuilding their infrastructure but the question remains. When will Africans, their leaders and all of the world’s leaders aggressively defend the lives of all people as a stand for the common thread of our shared humanity?
I entirely agree with the prophet Dr. King’s global connectedness of injustice and justice. Those leaders who failed all of us on Rwanda failed to heed the lessons of history and King’s moral challenge.
Chido Nwangwu, honored by the Washington-D. C.based National Immigration Forum for utilizing multimedia to fight authoritarianism and foster freedom of expression in parts of the African continent, is the Founder & Publisher of first African-owned, U.S-based professional newspaper published on the internet USAfricaonline.com, The Black Business Journal and AchebeBooks.com. He served on the board of the oldest civil rights organization in the U.S., the NAACP Houston, a publicity committee of the Holocaust Museum, Houston and on Houston former Mayor Lee Brown’s international business advisory board (Africa).
USAfricaonline.com hás several article/reports/insights on Rwanda’s genocide at www.usafricaonline.com/rwanda.genocideyears.html