Skip to main content

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan was in Vancouver promoting his latest book.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was in Vancouver this week to talk about his new book, Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, to the Bon Mot Book Club. He also spoke to The Globe and Mail about the escalating crisis in Syria, to which Mr. Annan devoted nearly six months this year as the UN and Arab League special envoy to encourage a negotiated settlement.

Q: You were on The Daily Show this week. Did you enjoy that?

A: It was fun.

Q: Right off the bat, I'm going to ask you about something you told host Jon Stewart when he asked you: on the scale of peace or 'run for your lives', where are we? And you answered: "Close to run." Could you elaborate on that?

A: We were discussing the Middle East, and the difficulties in Syria and in the region. It's one of the most volatile parts of the world, and I think any miscalculation can create enormous difficulties for all of us. This is why I have always encouraged no further militarization and that we should find a way of steering the parties to the table. But the longer it waits, the more difficult it gets.

Q: You have written that a conflagration in Syria threatens a regional explosion that could affect the rest of the world. How so?

A: Syria is located in a volatile part of the world. It's not neatly tucked away as Afghanistan, or Libya, for that matter. We have Iraq next door, which is not settled. We have Lebanon, which has shown incredible resilience and survival, but on some levels, it is still fragile. And we have a situation in Jordan and Turkey, where refugees are flowing. So if that whole situation were to get out of hand and spill over to its neighbours..., this is also a region where the oil-producing countries are not too far away. Any impact on oil prices could affect the global economy, which is already in a downturn.

It's already created major tensions between the big powers. We see the tension between China and Russia on one side, and USA, France and UK on the other. We are seeing divisions within the UN that we haven't seen since the Iraq war.

Q: The situation in Syria seems so distressing, so hopeless. You were actively involved there. How do you yourself react to what's taking place there?

A: It's sad, and I feel sorry for the people. There are so many agendas at play in a situation where we should be much more worried about the people. When I took the job, I said my only pre-occupation and my interests are the people of Syria.

Q: Yet you walked away.

A: I walked away for a very specific reason. When I took the job, I told the Security Council that this is almost an impossible job, but we can make a difference if the international community, that is the Security Council, sticks together, and gives united support, with sustained pressure on the parties to seek a political settlement.

This is why, in the end, we met in Geneva on the 30th of June, and that communique would be very interesting for you to look at, because that communique spells out principles and guidelines for a political transition. All five permanent members of the Security Council signed on to it at the Foreign Minister level.

It went on to explain what we mean by political transition, indicating that there should be an executive, an interim government, with full executive powers. There should be security forces with competent and top leadership. Institutions and governments should function, so that things don't collapse. We saw what happened in Iraq and nobody wanted that.

When they left Geneva and went to New York, I had hoped that the council would endorse this approach. In the end, regardless of what happens, or which side believes it has won, they have to sit and do this, because the mosaic of Syria is such that one group cannot claim they have won, that they are going to dominate the others. There has to be power-sharing. There has to be an arrangement that protects minorities and other groups, and creates a pluralistic society that would be harmonious and stable.

Q: But that seems light years away, doesn't it?

A: The way they are going, everyone seems determined to fight. I think the strategic choice has been made that they will get more from the battlefield. It is that mindset, that logic, that one has to work at. To switch it, you have to offer an alternative, discuss with the Syrians a framework for a new political dispensation that will look after the interests of each group.

Q: But when you say discuss with the Syrians, who are the Syrians? Who do you talk to?

A: Yes, yes. I think this has something we will have to discuss, obviously, with the opposition as well as people in government who are technocrats. Not everybody in Syria has blood on their hands, not everybody in the government. There will be people you can talk to.

Q: It must be hard to find those people.

A: The unfortunate situation is that now you have two powerful sides fighting each other, although this is a movement that started from the grass-roots, with people asking for their political rights, asking for their human rights. Now the emphasis is on those with guns, and the political and peaceful voices are almost being squeezed out. And on top of that, we talk of Alawite and Sunni. There are other groups in Syria. You have the Christians, you have the Druze, you have the Kurds, you have the Assyrians. These are all people in the middle, wondering what happens to them.

Q: Given all this, would you say your successor, Lakhdar Brahimi, is on a fool's errand. Would you go that far?

A: No. I think it's good he took on the job. As he himself said, it's near impossible, but I think it's good he took it on. We need to encourage the peaceful voices. We need to let them know, however hard it is, one is trying to find a peaceful way out. Right now, all the attention is focused on those with guns. That brings its own problems. We need to find a way of bringing in the peaceful elements. And I think he may be lucky, that there could be shifts in the dynamics of the situation opening up the possibilities of settlement, but he also needs the support of a united Security Council, and real support, not a passive one.

Q: But with Russia and China taking their positions, that's not there.

A: For the moment, no, but it could come, if there is leadership.

Q: I was struck by the disenchantment of a young protester, as Mr. Brahimi, arrived. He said the UN envoys will do nothing, because they have no power, spending their time "in meaningless meetings with regime officials, or opposition figures who have no presence on the ground." Is there some truth to that?

A: It depends what one is looking for, how one sees the UN. That's the way he sees it. But does he have people with power who are going to go in and help him, besides what the international community is trying to do through the UN? I know that those who believe the solution is military action consider any diplomatic or political effort a waste of time. In fact, they would even go further, and say that it is buying Assad time.

Q: But this man was not a violent protester. He was a peaceful voice, and he just doesn't see that the UN is any help.

A: The UN has never had that sort of power. I mean, this is heightened expectation and this is what we need to manage, this expectation that he is certain the UN is set up for failure. The UN doesn't have a standing army. The UN doesn't have guns, and when they talk of power, I know what kind of power people mean, and they are at the wrong address.

But I have to be careful, because we have a new envoy, who has just come out of Syria, doing his work. So I can answer some questions, but I shouldn't complicate his work with people saying, 'Mr. Annan says this, and what do you think?'

Q: Does the UN still have a role to play in the world, or is it outmoded, given the changing, increasingly violent geo-political landscape?

A: The UN is not a perfect organization, but we need it.

Q: Still?

A: Still. It is the organization that has the power to convene the whole world under one roof, to come and discuss common issues. It is the one organization that tries to sustain the norms that allow us to live in a peaceful way. Recently, we came up with a responsibility to protect. It is only the UN that could have come up with that sort of a norm. Who else?

Q: Is that the message of your book?

A: That is one of the messages. We are in the same boat. We live in the global village, if you will, and we all have a responsibility to try and make it a little better for our children and our grandchildren. But I also make the point that healthy societies today have to be built on three pillars.

They are peace and stability and development and respect for rule of law and human rights. I think in the past we have tended to focus on the first two, stability and economic development, often ignoring the third essential piece.

It's obvious that you cannot have long term development without stability, and you can't have stability without long term development.

But both have to be rooted in rule of law and respect for human rights.

If you don't have rule of law, in a way you are building on sand. And we have seen the recent history.

Q: Do you think we are progressing to that, or are we slipping back down?

A: Some countries are progressing. Others are slipping, and some are struggling. It's not easy to achieve.

Q: And so many people in the world now have guns.

A: That's a problem. We need to find ways of dissuading them that guns do not help, or encourage them to disarm. Buy the guns if necessary, or some sort of creative way of mopping up all those guns in civilian hands. But of course, in some of these situations, we are seeing a man with a gun doesn't starve, and he feels his power, and he doesn't want to give it up.

Q: There's not much fun in the world, these days, is there?

A. No.