Annan’s 44-year run

Did you imagine that you would one day head this world organisation?

No, it was never part of my dream. In fact, when I first joined the United Nations system, I thought I would do two years and leave and here I am, 40 years later. I couldn’t have dreamed of becoming secretary general because it had never happened before: the organisation always went outside, they had never elected somebody from within the ranks of the staff.

How do you view the world’s leadership today? Once upon a time the world stage was dominated by giants, whether you agreed with them or not: Nasser, Nehru, Chou En-lai. Today the world seems to be filled with political pygmies. Do you agree?

On the question of the kind of leaders that we have, it’s often difficult to say whether it’s the circumstances that create the leaders or, going back to this question, are leaders [sitting] around waiting to exploit a certain situation to demonstrate their greatness — each country seems to get the leaders it deserves. When you look back, we talk of giants and great leaders, but that was also a time of considerable turmoil. I would hope that our times would also produce some of these great leaders.

The UN is often blamed for the global failure of leadership.

I think part of it is our failure to communicate. I’ve tried to get it out as often as possible, telling the public that the UN is not some satellite out there that governments can blame and they have nothing to do with it. And when things go wrong you don’t hear from them.

People forget that there are two UNs: the UN that is made up of member states that sit on the Security Council and the General Assembly and give us orders and mandates, and the Secretariat that carries out these mandates. They often confuse the two and, of course, by doing that, they provide an alibi to the member states. When I hear heads of state get up and say ”the UN must act in, say, Darfur”, who is the UN here?

I also think the press can be helpful, particularly those who understand this issue. We have not been able to do it and sometimes we have been a bit too restrained in the sense that you don’t want to be seen as a house divided and fighting each other. The member states say ”the Secretariat” and we say ”the member states”, and it exacerbates the perception of a dysfunctional or disunited house.

The Bush administration made a strategic choice about how to deal with the threats it faced in the world. Do you think that was the wrong strategic decision?

Over the past five years many choices have been made by governments. Some have worked, others have gone catastrophically wrong and have had an impact on this organisation and on the world.

You are asking someone who believes that in wars all are losers. Not until the guns have been silenced and people begin to look around them do they see what damage and destruction they have wrought. I think that in calm moments no one can claim they won or they were better off than before the conflict.

Now, obviously, on Iraq different choices could have been made that could have led to different results. The member states debated it fully, and you noticed that the majority of the members in the council could not bring themselves to vote for military action. The United States and others decided to go outside the council to take action, and of course individual governments are free to take decisions that they wish to. But I think it was appropriate that the council took the decision it did. In my judgement, the UN worked as it should have at the time.

What scares you most as you look to the future?

One of the interesting things was the high-level panel on threats, challenges and change — I asked them to look at all the threats and challenges that we face. Because traditionally, conventionally, we tend to look at threats in terms of conflict: wars, civil war or interstate war. But they came back, in my judgement, with a more realistic and much broader definition of threats.

Their definition of threats includes poverty, environmental degradation, internationally organised crime, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and infectious diseases. How you look at all these things depends on where you sit. If you ask a New Yorker today, he’d probably say that the biggest threat is terrorism. If you go and ask someone living in an island state, he’d tell you it’s environmental degradation and global warming.

So which of these keeps you awake at night?

(Laughs) Let me say that environmental degradation is a serious problem and I am extremely concerned about it and don’t think we are doing enough, and the costs are going to be extremely high. I think we have all the science we need, we don’t need additional science. So that really worries me.

Another strategic failure by this White House?

It is strategic. It was a choice. It was a strategic choice. Now they are beginning to wake up to it.

Too late?

It is late.

Would you call it a strategic failure to wake up this late?

In my judgement, yes. And then I am extremely worried about the broader Middle East — I would even expand it to Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, tensions in Syria, Palestine and, of course, acrimonious relations with Iran. I don’t know which direction it will lead to. But on my last trip to the region all the leaders were extremely worried about their region and about what is going on in Iraq. They also went beyond that and said: ”I hope that you, the UN, will find the will to resolve this Iranian issue, through negotiations and peacefully, because we don’t need another crisis. We cannot handle another crisis in this region.” So that’s another thing that really worries me. And of course we have a terrible situation in Darfur.

More than your predecessors, you have gotten away with saying some strong things about powerful member states. How did you do that without irritating people?

(Laughs) Well I did irritate some people. Some of the things I said had to be said and I believed in them. Take the issue of the responsibility to protect. You remember in 1999, in my GA speech, when I said: ”We cannot accept that governments can hide behind the shield of sovereignty and brutalise their people or allow these violations to go on,” quite a lot of ambassadors were very upset that I was encouraging interference in their internal affairs. And yet five, six years on, we have the responsibility to protect as a principle accepted by all heads of state.

I’m also conscious that, particularly when it comes to human dignity and individual rights, some of the positions I have taken or things I say are also intended to empower others, particularly the civil society. In some countries people can quote the secretary general, say ”the secretary general said this or that” and not go to jail. If they say it themselves they will be in trouble.

I think you’re right that it’s how you say it to them and really challenge them and say ”we need to confront”.

Is there a double standard at the UN? In the Middle East? One set of rules for one country and another set of rules for the rest of the world?

The question of double standards is a question you never get away from when you touch the Middle East, whether you are discussing the Middle East in the region or outside the region. We’ve often been accused of UN resolutions being implemented selectively. I try to explain that we can only implement these resolutions with the cooperation of the member states.

In situations where the member states concerned do not cooperate it’s extremely difficult for the UN to impose any resolutions. And besides, these resolutions are not self-imposing and you need cooperation when you are stuck. This summer we saw member states, when they finally decided to ask for cessation of hostilities, showing considerable political will in deploying the troops to Lebanon as fast as we did. I was impressed. I discussed it with them. I think it was the fastest we’ve ever deployed, but the will was there. Where there is no will, it’s extremely difficult.

But when it comes to the broader question, of the impact of wars on populations, we need to be very, very careful in all these situations to protect civilian population. You will recall that during the conflict I kept saying that they should not destroy infrastructure. Not only to protect (civilians) but you should really try not to destroy infrastructure, factories and things that the civilian population will need for their livelihood after the war.

I think in this particular situation both sides violated international humanitarian law. The Human Rights Council has made that clear, because one has to distinguish between civilians and fighters. I don’t think it was done effectively or that well in this particular conflict, and civilians have paid the price.

How difficult has it been to keep the Bush administration on board?

They are an important member state. And they need the UN and we need them. One has to work with them as one works with other member states.

You’ve said that global warming is your biggest concern now; do you plan to become engaged on the issue?

We will speak out from time to time.

On your way out, our last question would be: hopes and plans for the future?

(Laughs) A long vacation. We’ll take three months, at least. Then we’ll have one foot in Ghana and one in Europe.

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