This piece written by William Dowell and Edward Girardet was published by The Essential Edge 18 April, 2013.
Geneva — Kofi Annan was regarded by many of his colleagues and peers as one of the greatest secretary generals at the United Nations since Dag Hammerskjold. After a last ditch trip Baghdad in a vain attempt to prevent the war in Iraq, the exhausted but indefatigable secretary general returned to New York only to find a burst of applause from virtually the entire UN Secretariat staff who had lined up outside the building’s entrance to cheer Annan’s valiant, if doomed, efforts. These were times that marked one of the most crucial turning points in international diplomacy since the outbreak of World War II.
In 2001, largely as a result of Kofi Annan’s leadership, the UN was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. A key witness to that era, Frederic Eckhard, who was Annan’s spokesperson, has just published The Life and Legacy of Kofi Annan-A Spokesperson’s Memoir (Publisher: Ruder Finn), which provides fascinating insights into the role that the UN played in trying to prolong peace in a time of growing world turbulence.
As a Time Magazine correspondent covering the UN Secretariat in New York, one of the co-authors of this piece – William Dowell – spent many hours in Fred’s office and was constantly amazed at his candor, sense of decency and aplomb in trying times. In contrast to the typical spinmeister, Fred never misled journalists nor did he hide the truth. After Washington erupted in fury at Kofi Annan attempts to reason with Saddam Hussein, Fred casually mentioned to this reporter that the Secretary General was exhausted from hearing Madeleine Albright yell at him on the phone.
At another time, Dowell sat in his office while Eckhard tried to reason with staff at the UN Compound in East Timor. The military staff wanted to evacuate the compound, but UN civilians refused to leave, knowing that if they did the East Timorese refugees who had sought refuge in the compound risked being massacred. These were dramatic moments, and Fred Eckhardt made certain that the world knew about them, while at the same time ensuring the discretion required for diplomacy to succeed. It was an exceptionally delicate balancing act.
In this gripping tale, Eckhard notes that Annan’s second term in office proved exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, when the “oil-for-food” crisis erupted in 2004-2005. Both the UN and Annan took a beating from the right-wing press in the US. Britain’s ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, remarked to this reporter (Dowell) that Kofi Annan tended to look at Washington the way a cowboy would look at a stampedeing herd of cattle. “You didn’t want to stand in front of the stampede and be trampled to death,” Greenstock said. “You wanted to ride along with it and then gently nudge it in a safe direction.” Greenstock added that that had been Britain’s approach as well. As war fever over Saddam’s repeated provocations built up in Washington, redirecting the stampede became increasingly difficult, and the hawkish conservatives aching for action became harder to contain.
“I was a very angry man. I was furious at the way Kofi was treated by the American conservative press,” Eckard says. Eckhardt sees the book, which has been updated from a French edition published in 2009, as one way of setting the record straight.
Eckhard says that one of the problems the UN still faces today is that even those who bitterly criticize it have enormous expectations of what the organization can and should achieve. Few realize that the UN has a worldwide staff smaller than the Stockholm City Council. More than that, the organization can only be as effective as its 193 member states allow it to be. The United Nations cannot simply do what it wants.
According to Eckhardt, Annan’s greatest achievement, however, was to shift the UN from an organization that only served the wishes of governments to one which beginning to see its principal role as serving the people. Annan, who had worked his way up through the different echelons of the UN system was ideally positioned to modernize the organization (Edward Girardet, the other co-author of this piece, first encountered Kofi while reporting for The Christian Science Monitor in the back of a truck traversing Ethiopia to visit refugee camps in the 1980s. He also first met Eckhard in Namibia during the territory’s transition period from South African mandate to independence in March, 1990 under UN oversight). Annan could be disarmingly unassuming while at the same time authorative.
According to a story often repeated at the UN Secretariat in New York, an exhausted female staff member who had been working long months on peace keeping operations in the field was reassigned to the New York secretariat building against her will. For nearly a week, she refused to come out of her office except to get an occasional glass of water in the hallway. While at the water cooler, a handsome young, black staff member started a conversation with her. She assumed that he was a messenger or a secretarial helper, and she remarked that she hated being in the Secretariat. “I know the feeling,” sympathized the young man. After a week, the woman felt secure enough to come out of her office and she told her boss that she was ready to talk to the under-secretary general. “You have been talking to him all week,” was the reply.
Eckhardt says that Annan both positioned the organization for change and gave its staff the room needed to grow. “He hired good people and gave them the freedom to do what they saw fit,” he says. “He backed them up. He harmonized the system. He liked to get on with everybody. He did not like enemies.”
Annan proved a strong supporter of the International Criminal Court, and managed to push its acceptance through the UN General Assembly. “We now have international law that says genocide is wrong,” Eckhard adds. Annan also established the Human Rights Council, and he used the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to better harmonize the system. His objective was always to see how he could accomplish something specific in a given period of time.
Peacekeeping had remained a relatively small operation until Annan came on the scene. US military officials visiting the United Nations in New York were amazed at how few staff members were actually dealing with half a dozen peacekeeping operations. “Kofi managed to double the budget and turn it into a proper operation,” recalls Eckhardt. “He provided a sense of continuity for peacemaking. He also knew that unless you do all these things in sequence, you can’t cement the piece.”
For Eckhart, Kofi Annan is a “good guy.” But then, he added with a smile, “someone had to say it.” Eckhardt deliberately wrote the book in everyday language. While the book may prove of particular interest to students of international affairs, it is also a highly worthwhile read for concerned people who simply wish to better understand what the world can realistically do – or not do – about resolving conflicts and humanitarian crises.
“What many don’t realise is that technically, the Secretary General is not supposed to have a political role. But almost from the very beginning, each one rattled the cage starting with Dag Hammarskjold, the second secretary general. U Thant, for example, is known as the “forgotten” secretary general, but he nevertheless played a strong political role during the Vietnam War.
Eckhard, a US citizen now living in France, maintains that he never came under direct pressure from the US government. But did he ever have any strong disagreements with Kofi Annan? Yes, he acknowledges. This was when Kofi Annan denied permission for a Chinese political dissident, who had been invited by the US Press Association, to enter the United Nations premises in NY in order not to upset the government in Beijing. Eckhard was upset and considered this a grave mistake. He sent Annan a strong note, but did not get a reply. Two weeks later, he asked Annan what he thought of the letter. The Secretary General looked at him and said: “Don’t be a fundamentalist.”
This was Kofi’s prerogative, Eckhard explains. “He had the right not to allow someone into the building. He was the boss of the house.” He listened, consulted and then, like a traditional African chief, he made his decision.
So what is Kofe’s legacy today? Most of the criticism against the former Secretary General was in the US. “I think he has great standing today. During his frist term, he was the secular Pope. A great success. But during his second term, as Mark Malloch-Brown pointed out, the “oil for food” programme was a like a “black ticket on his card.” Nevertheless, Kofi Annan did finally speak out against the war noting that according to the UN charter, it was an illegal one. Much of the world applauded him for this, even if they did not in the States. Today, much of this criticism is being washed away.”
William Dowell and Edward Girardet are both journalists and authors focusing on humanitarian, conflict, media and other global issues. They are also co-editors of Crosslines Essential Media (UK) Ltd. as well as The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan in the Crosslines Humanitarian and Conflict Series and The Essential Edge.