Righting might Ft. Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General (1997-2006)

The UN rose out of the ashes of WWII, as nations came together in their determination to never again repeat the horrors of that war. As the UN turns 70, the world seems more divided and paralyzed to act than ever. Has it become a relic of the past, and is it capable of adapting to the security challenges of the 21st century? Oksana is joined by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to discuss these issues.

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Oksana Boyko:Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. "We the peoples" - those are the first words of the UN charter that are also supposed to describe its decision-making process. But in a world struggling with discord and divisions, does the idea of nations "united" go anywhere beyond inspiring rhetoric? Well to discuss that, I'm now joined by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Mr Annan, it's such an honour to talk to you, thank you for this opportunity. Now, while preparing for this interview, I re-read your final speech, the very last speech in your capacity of Secretary-General. And what struck me was that it wasn't addressed to the people of the world. It was primarily aiming or targeting the American audience. You quoted Harry Truman a lot, you talked about the value of multilateralism, and it really came across as your appeal, or your call on the most powerful nation in the world to be prudent in its exercise of both power and responsibility. If you had to write it today, would you have had the same speech? How do you approach these issues today?

Kofi Annan: First of all, the issues I raised in that speech about the role of big powers in the world, and the powerful using their power to protect the weak and not to oppress them, is something that is still relevant today. And if we are going to live in an interdependent world, we need to find a way of cooperating with each other, and respecting each other, each other's needs, each other's culture, and really understand that we cannot be safe at the expense of the other, or prosperous at the expense of the other, and that we all have interests, and we need to work in a cooperative and harmonious manner.

OB:And one of the issues you particularly stress is this notion of collective security. And the reason I mention that is, obviously, you just came back from a meeting with the Russian President. And for him, the issues of multilateralism, collective security are very, very close to his heart. I don't know if he expressed that in a conversation with you, but I think he sees the current crisis in Ukraine, as well as many other geopolitical crises, as a failure by certain powers to accept that principle. I wonder, though, if you have any of the criticisms for his position?

KA: I think we had a very frank discussion. We had a frank discussion on the issues of Ukraine, we talked about the Middle East, Syria, Iraq and the spread of terrorism, and the need to cooperate to contain it. And what was important is that I left the president convinced that he wants to work with others. He wants to work with the European Union, with the US and other governments to try and improve the world we live in. That is the way to go. In today's interdependent world, no country can go it alone, however powerful. You need to cooperate with others to make the world and your own country safe. And in fact, when we sit back and consider seriously, we will come to the conclusion that the international interest is often also the national interest. And if we work effectively with others to solve some of the problems, we are also improving the situation for ourselves and at home.

OB:Well, one of the ways of working productively with others would be to use the infrastructure of the United Nations and the Security Council. And you know that the Security Council of late has been the platform where certain powers – Russia, the United States – had many, many disagreements. Now you said famously back in 1999 that “unless the UN Security Council is restored to its pre-eminent position as the sole source of legitimacy on the use of force, we are on a dangerous path to anarchy.” Now, given the conflict in Ukraine that you mentioned, given the conflicts in Syria, in Libya, in a host of other countries, are we still on the path, or have we actually reached the destination that you mentioned?

KA: We've made some serious mistakes. There have been some serious omissions and serious diversions. But the principle is still the same. When it comes to use of force, a country can use force to protect itself if its under threat of imminent attack, or it's attacked. But when it comes to the collective interest and the use of force for collective protection, only the Security Council can authorise that force. And that was one of the reasons, for example, on Iraq, my position was very clear. I did not support the war in Iraq because I think it was not in conformity with the Charter, and actually I still feel the same way. And we have seen the results of some of these interventions and the impact it has had on the countries, and in some situations, on the whole region. So I still maintain it is safer to go through the Council, work with the other member states, to make our world a better place. And whenever we have ignored the Council and gone it alone, the results have not been very encouraging.

OB: Now, the problem is, and perhaps you would disagree with me, is that it's not only the great powers that ignore the Security Council. But I think there are also a number of countries, Saudi Arabia being the latest example, that have felt perhaps that they can do it alone. Do you see that as perhaps a sort of permissive environment for the use of force spreading around the world? And where does it start, or where does it finish for that matter?

KA: No, but that is actually the problem. Because if one country gets away with it, powerful or weak, if they get away with it, it sets a precedent and others think they can also get away with it. And this is why, as an international community, we need to be firm, we need to try and have a Council that is highly respected and takes the decisions which applies to all. But the decisions must not only be applied to the weak, the powerful should apply the same rules to themselves. Because if they don't, and they make exceptions for themselves, others are going to copy, others will see it as a precedent. And before you know it, you have proliferation of all sorts of unwelcome military actions.

OB:Now, one way to avoid that would be a reform of the UN Security Council, which you have advocated for a very, very long time. And you also said that the only way this reform could be effective is if the permanent members of the Security Council accepted that the Council was not just yet another stage to act out on their national interests, but rather the “management committee of our fledgling collective security system.” And from many encounters that I had, both with the Russian officials, the American officials, none of them believes that they are acting out of selfishness, or national selfishness. They all believe that they are working in the service of humanity. The problem is that their definitions of good and evil, and how to get there, are very, very different. I wonder if you see any chance, any opportunity for other members of perhaps the Security Council, or perhaps the United Nations, to circumvent this constant bickering between Moscow and Washington, and do something without them?

KA: I think, first of all, I would still press for expansion of the Council. Expansion of the Council to bring around the table some of the emerging powers. Because I believe if you have the emerging powers around the table – let's assume, for argument's sake, I'm not promoting any country's candidacy for the Council – let's assume, as new members, you had India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, South Africa, and countries of that, Egypt, at the table. For a country, one country to veto and ignore the whole world, with all that group of people representing large populations around the table, would be much more difficult than it is today. Because they would understand that they are taking on the rest of the world, not only in abstract, but they are in the room and sitting at the table around them. So that is one thing. The other thing that some have argued is that the General Assembly should play a role. Because under the General Assembly rules, they could sometimes under a procedure called “Uniting for Peace”, can take action, can pass resolutions which can have impact on questions of war and peace.

OB:I'm sorry for interrupting, that would also mean diminishing the power of veto. Do I get you right?

KA: It will mean you have a way of working out, it will diminish the power of veto. Let me put it this way - the veto powers would be careful not to veto, if the General Assembly were to accept and can override Council vetoes. No country would want to put itself in that situation.

OB:Well, Mr Annan, we have to take a very short break now, but when we come back - Might makes right has almost become the axiom of the 21st century. Is it too late to return to the rules? That's coming up in a moment on Worlds Apart, stay tuned.

OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart where we are discussing global security with former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Now, over the last couple of years, especially in relation to Syria, we had heard a lot of complaints about how various powers are exercising their veto. And I think, again I'm talking primarily about Russia and the United States. And I think you too, at one point, had had enough with the two of them bickering, I mean the moment when you decided to step down from your position as the UN and Arab League Envoy. And I was in Damascus at that time, and I remember, the situation was obviously very, very different from what it is now. But it already, that news already ushered in the sense of despair and the sense of hopelessness that many in Syria feel today. Did you ever regret that decision, that perhaps you have stepped down too early? If you stayed, you may have had some civilising effect on the powers, and perhaps there could have been more progress on the issue?

KA: No, I had no regret. It was a very difficult decision for me, because I accepted willingly to go in to help. France said you have taken on an impossible job. I said, I know it's going to be difficult, probably impossible, but how can you refuse to help, when women, children and a whole host of people are dying? So I accepted the job, but on condition that those who gave me the job would stay united, speak with one voice and support me. That didn't happen. It happened for a while, but then the divisions emerged. The mediator or the peacemaker cannot want peace more than the protagonist or more than the people who gave him the job. So without their support, and particularly after the first Geneva Conference on Syria, where I thought we had made good progress, we came out with a Communiqué including a paragraph which said what we need to do in Syria is to try and establish a transitional government with full executive authority, of course with the involvement of the Syrians and the people. Basically, saying let's try and manage this process, let's try and organise a transition so that we don't get a chaotic collapse with nothing. And I had, all the permanent members were there – my friend Sergey Lavrov was there, Mrs Clinton -

OB: (crosstalk) yeah, they were all on board, and yet they didn't follow through -

KA: …and they signed the agreement. Unfortunately we did not get some of the countries we wanted from the region to come. I had wanted Iran and Saudi Arabia to join us, but they were both not there, for reasons that would take me a bit longer to explain. So in the end, we had Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. But the real regional powers were not there. And if one has a chance to put together that group, it should be, in my judgement, the Permanent Five, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and possibly Qatar and Jordan, to make a common cause, for them to say we face a common danger, let's work together to pacify this region.

OB: I want to expand on this point, and mention your book. In your book “Interventions”, there is one phrase in particular that caught my attention. You wrote that you can disagree with behaviour or a particular position, but you do not resort to calling an opponent worthless. And I was really surprised to hear that from you, because I think that's the way modern geopolitics is done. Whatever crisis we take, there is very little discussion on the substance, it's all about calling each other names and trying to deny each other legitimacy or respect. Now, you are a person of a different kind. I think you have this very dignified bearing as a politician or as a diplomat. But don't you think that this style of diplomacy is essentially extinct at this point? And don't you believe that this lack of emotional restraint in geopolitics is ultimately responsible for what we have on our hands today?

KA: I think you've answered the question. In fact, you are right. When you begin to call each other names, when you begin to demonise the other, when you begin to hate the other in order to accept yourself, you are really complicating the situation. You can agree with them on policy, you can agree with them on approach, you can disagree with them on the brutality, but still find a way of talking to them, find a way to get a solution. And in fact, sometimes when you reach [inaudible] and you are able to get to understand what is it that is driving them, what is it that is making them behave the way they do. And you begin to work with that knowledge, you'd sometimes be surprised the progress you would make. But if you're dealing with somebody that you have demonised, that you consider is worthless, you are starting a conversation on a very false basis. You've lost the conversation before you even get into it. And I think some of the situations we are seeing around the world is because of this attitude and this behaviour.

OB: Now, in that same book, you also make a very interesting observation that the international community's appetite for interventions depends not only on individual circumstances of any given crisis, but also on the outcome of previous interventions. You mention that the world was so slow on Rwanda because it came on the back of Somalia. And we all know that the Libyan campaign had an impact on Syria. I wonder, though, given your personal experience, do you still believe that the price of non-intervening is higher than the price of intervening?

KA: I think it depends. You have to start on the basis that you should do no harm. You shouldn't do more harm than is necessary. So you have to assess the situation to see will the intervention help, would it have a positive aspect, or would it do more harm. And if you analyse it and you were to conclude that the results would be much more disastrous, then what's the point of intervention? What would the people gain? What are you offering them, if it's going to make their situation worse? And how do you explain to the world why you intervened?

OB: Well, that leads me to my next question. I don't know, though, if you would agree with the premise. But I think that the use of violence as a political and geopolitical tool has become much more acceptable since you stepped down from your position. And this is an issue that I often debate with my guests. And some of them, particularly Western politicians, like to quote you, that famous quote when you said that “you can do a lot with diplomacy, but with diplomacy backed up by force, you can get a lot more done.” You said that in relation to Saddam Hussein when he was in Iraq. But do you still subscribe to that principle?

KA: No. I think it should not be misinterpreted. It is one thing to have the threat of use of force, and actual use of force. In fact, sometimes the threat of potential use of force is much more effective than actual use of force. When the other side knows that you have the capacity and you may use it, the attitude is different. If you do not have the capacity and you go naked, like a Secretary-General of the UN, where some leaders have asked, “How many divisions [has the] Secretary-General got?”, it's quite different. But if the Secretary-General, the individual, is saying, look, be careful, you have to do the right thing otherwise you may provoke a reaction that will be much more brutal than the conversation I'm having with you, is something quite different. So, for me it's the threat rather than actually jumping in to intervention. I'm not a pacifist. There are moments when use of force can be justified. But it has to be analysed very carefully, and one shouldn't be trigger-happy.

OB: Well, I just want to remind our viewers that you said that about Saddam Hussein when he was still in Iraq, and obviously some people misinterpreted what you said back then. You also mentioned that your position on Iraq was pretty straight forward. You believe that was illegal, not in conformity with the UN Charter. And I don't think it's a controversial statement any more. But what is controversial is where the consequences of that illegal intervention end. Do you believe, or do you see the events, the current events in Iraq or perhaps in the neighbouring countries, as a direct consequence of that intervention, or perhaps as something that is separate?

KA: No, absolutely, you can not disassociate the situation in Iraq today from the US intervention of 2003. Because not only did the intervention take place, but they dismantled the Iraqi Army, which was the tool of Saddam to maintain law and order. The civil service, the Baathist Party were all [dismantled]. So the structures and state institutions vanished overnight, creating a very serious vacuum which has led to where we are today. So I don't think anybody can argue with that. So the link is clear, and it's not [inaudible].

OB: But Mr Annan, that is, obviously, one of the biggest problems with the current international system – the lack of any accountability for the big powers, and I don't just mean the United States here. But the Iraqi example is particularly relevant, because we had hundreds of thousands of people killed or dying as a result of that intervention, and yet not a single official bearing responsibility for that. Do you believe, realistically, in any mechanism that will make big powers accountable?

KA: Well, I think, after the Yugoslav war, attempts were made to make leaders and people accountable. Several tribunals were set up – the tribunal for Yugoslavia and Tribunal for Rwanda, and there have been several indictments. And today, we have the International Criminal Court. But what is interesting is that the big powers are not members of the Court, and yet they sit in the Security Council and refer smaller countries and others to the Court. In effect, saying we are going to apply the law to the small people and the small countries, but we would absolve ourselves, it wouldn't apply to us. What sort of justice is that? It has to be, we have to aim for a system, and a legal system where the laws are applied fairly and consistently across the board.

OB: (crosstalk) But do you believe that such a system could be created with the current set-up of the...

KA: It will take time. I don't think it will happen today. But it is something that we aim for. You know, it's a bit like asking me, what's the point of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it's been in force for decades and it hasn't been implemented? But it's aspirational, we should aim for that. We should aim to get these higher standards. Even if we don't achieve it now, it is a challenge for us to wake up every morning, determined to fight for those rights.

OB:If I may, very quickly, I would like to bring the discussion closer to home. And you're in Moscow as part of the Elders Group. One of the issues, as you said, that you discussed with President Putin was the situation in Ukraine. What do you think the Elders can do here? I mean, do you plan to continue your discussions with other leaders, like President Poroshenko, perhaps rebel leaders?

KA: We will talk to other leaders. We have been talking to other leaders and we will continue to talk to other leaders. The Elders believe firmly that the Minsk II agreement must be implemented and implemented fully. We have it on the table. The parties have agreed to it. Now, the test is implementation, and we should do everything to get it implemented, and I hope it can be done. And the four leaders who signed it also have a responsibility to make sure it is done, and find a way of bringing the parties together to implement the agreement.

OB:Now, compared to other conflicts that you have been involved in, the Ukrainian one is in relatively early stages. And on the one hand, because of its geography, it has gotten the attention of the international community, but on the other hand, because of its geography the stakes are so high. So there are conflicting pushes from different sides. Given your experience, what do you think would be the key for stemming this conflict? Obviously it's not too late, I think, compared to the Syrian one. But what do you think perhaps we could learn from all the other failures to make this one a success?

KA: Let me say that you are right. There are many people around the world, not only in Europe, who have thought for quite a long time that today, war in Europe is unthinkable. And yet we have war in Europe, as they see it, in Ukraine. So there has been a sort of a shock, and gathered attention. But I think, objectively speaking, it should be easier to resolve the Ukrainian problem compared with what we are dealing with in the Middle East. Provided there is will and determination by the leaders concerned and the parties to make the Minsk Agreement work. At least here, you have an agreement. It may not be perfect, but it's workable. What is important is to press all concerned to ensure that the agreement is implemented as soon as possible. Otherwise the situation could get out of hand. Yes, it's not as bad as other crises, but it wasn't more than a couple of years ago when Syria also had only about 10,000 dead. But even one person, one life lost is too much. We don't want one more life lost in Ukraine, particularly when a roadmap for resolving it is on the table.

OB: Well, Mr Annan, we have to leave it there, I really appreciate your time. And to our viewers, please share your thoughts on our Twitter, Facebook and YouTube pages, and I hope to see you again, same place, same time, here on Worlds Apart.