Paul Heinbecker and Allan Rock, former Canadian ambassadors to the United Nations
In a world bereft of leadership, with the liberal multilateral order at risk of fracturing, the passing of Kofi Annan reminds us what we have lost. Principled but pragmatic, soft-spoken and self-effacing yet self-assured in style, Kofi (as he was universally known) was the definition of a leader.
Leading the United Nations is surely the world’s most thankless job. Secretaries-general are secular popes, whose strength is not measured in military might, for the “SG” has no army to deploy. Nor is power gauged by budget size; a secretary-general depends utterly on governments to fund the organization. For any secretary-general, power derives from the courage of his (so far only “his”) convictions to denounce tyranny and oppression, to stand up for the weak and to speak truth to power – especially to the five permanent members of the Security Council where the UN’s real power lies. Major powers prefer SGs who are more secretary than general, little heard and less seen, convenient scapegoats they can blame for tragedies such as Somalia, Rwanda, Darfur and Srebrenica, when the blame is actually theirs.
Preventing conflict and ending it are at the top of every secretary-general’s job description. One of Kofi’s most important and least celebrated accomplishments was delaying the onset of the 2003 Iraq war to give diplomacy a chance. Former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and chief of staff Andrew Card made it evident in the summer of 2002 that the United States was preparing to invade Iraq. At the UN that September, U.S. president George Bush declared that his country could “not stand by and do nothing while dangers gather[ed].” To the evident chagrin of the White House, however, a few days later, Kofi announced that he had persuaded Baghdad to agree to allow UN weapons inspectors to return to Iraq, creating time and space for diplomacy to avoid the impending conflict. Regrettably, the Bush administration, for whom war was a first rather than last resort, wasted the chance Kofi gave them to make peace, and invaded in March, 2003, without a Security Council warrant.
No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. No connection to al-Qaeda was established. But several hundred thousand people and probably more were killed and the region destabilized.
After having made every effort to persuade the United States to change course, Kofi ultimately declared the war illegal, despite heavy American pressure on the UN to provide its endorsement. The Bush administration rewarded Kofi’s leadership and integrity with threats and contempt. When elements of corruption subsequently emerged in the UN Oil-for-Food Programme (OFFP), which the UN Security Council had implemented in 1996 to allow Iraq to sell oil to pay for food and other necessities, the United States laid all fault at Kofi’s door. A subsequent inquiry ultimately turned a blind eye to the failings of the Security Council. Ironically, most of the 2,253 malefactors ultimately identified as scamming the program were from the private sector; only two UN staff were charged. Meanwhile, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the entity the United States invented to govern occupied Iraq, lost track of nearly US$9-billion of impounded Iraqi money turned over to the United States by the OFFP. That money, held in escrow by the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, was reportedly flown to Iraq in cash on pallets and was never accounted for. That was the real Oil-for-Food scandal. President Bush later showed his contempt for the UN by appointing John Bolton as his UN Ambassador – a controversial hire who had openly derided the UN.
Kofi persevered despite that toxic environment, giving voice especially to Africa, the world’s neglected afterthought. There, his efforts helped halt the spread of HIV/AIDS and promoted universal primary education. He pushed ahead with the Millennium Development Goals, which included reducing global poverty by half. He persisted in modernizing UN governance and reforming the practice and principles of peacekeeping, so that the Blue Helmets were no longer neutral between the oppressed and their oppressors. He convened the largest gathering of world leaders ever assembled, where he promoted the Canadian-led initiative on the Responsibility to Protect people from genocide and other mass atrocities.
In his speech to Parliament in 2004, Kofi observed that “it’s hard to imagine the United Nations without Canada and, I might even say, it has become hard to imagine Canada without the United Nations.” Equally, it is hard to imagine trying to cope with our deeply troubled world without Kofi. May he rest in peace.