The Guardian: Interview with Kofi Annan on Syria and RtoP
23 May 2014
The world has let down the people of Syria, leaving tens of thousands to die as neighbouring nations wage proxy wars instead of working to prevent the bloodshed that has engulfed the country for the past three years, according to the former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan.
In a bleak assessment of the global response to the crisis in Syria, but also those in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Ukraine and Nigeria, Annan said the international community seemed unable to focus on more than one emergency at a time and had become increasingly loath to stage military interventions.
Annan resigned as UN envoy to Syria in August 2012, describing his role as a "mission impossible" because of growing militarisation and a lack of unity among world powers.
The 76-year-old Ghanaian diplomat, who led the UN between 1997 and 2006, said the unwillingness or inability of the regional powers – Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey – to co-operate with the UN security council, and the "almost proxy war" being conducted between Riyadh and Tehran, were jeopardising the search for peace.
"The UN can be as strong as the international community wants it to be and it means if they want it to be strong, they need to make the resources available, take the decisions and follow through," he said.
"We used to complain about proxy wars, funded and encouraged by the US and Russia, now we are seeing proxy wars being undertaken by regional powers; as I look around, you have countries that are more afraid of the regional powers than the superpowers because the superpowers are far away – they are not as closely involved – and the regional powers can play a very disruptive role in any country when they decide to."
Although Annan stressed that armed interventions were not the solution to every internal conflict – including in Syria – he said individual nations had become more reluctant to pledge troops.
Despite the long and bloody campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, many countries had come to the conclusion that UN peacekeeping operations had to be risk-free enterprises, he said.
"When you get into a situation like Syria, no country wants to go in," said Annan. "I haven't seen armies lining up, saying, 'We are volunteering'. And their own populations are telling them – the US in particular – 'No more military adventures'. And so your intervention has to be short of military."
The problem, he said, was that diplomatic and political attempts to end the fighting in Syria were going nowhere either. "They have been stymied because of the divisions at the national level, the regional level, and the level of the UN security council," he said.
"So we've let the people of Syria down. While we are divided and pointing fingers and accusing each other, they are paying with their lives."
(…) He pointed out that, like Syria, all the current crises were further complicated by their regional dimensions. "The Central African Republic is close to [DR] Congo, which has very serious problems, and then of course, you have South Sudan and Sudan," he said. "And then you have Ukraine, which also is very serious."
This month, Annan's successor, Ban Ki-moon, warned that if the conflict continued in South Sudan, half of its 12 million people would be either "displaced internally, refugees abroad, starving or dead by the year's end".
The sectarian violence in the Central African Republic, meanwhile, has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and left 2.2 million in need of humanitarian aid. As worrying as the regional fallout, said Annan, was the difficulty in keeping the world's attention on multiple international emergencies.
"You sometimes have a feeling that the global community – and even the big powers – can only focus on one crisis at a time," he said. "We've moved from Syria to Ukraine. Look at how the focus on Ukraine has eclipsed what is going on in Syria and in other places. The only crisis that has got a bit of attention and been able to break through the Ukrainian dominance is the girls of Nigeria."
As with Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Ukraine, he said, the Nigerian situation had cross-border ramifications, making regional and international co-operation the key to combating Boko Haram, the Islamist group that snatched the girls in mid-April, and which has terrorised the north of the country for the past five years.
"The response [in Nigeria] should have come earlier – not only to Boko Haram but to the kidnapping of the girls," he said. "Everybody woke up three weeks later when they'd been away for so long. They are now determined to get them back and I hope they will be able to get them back, but the only way to fight terrorism is through international co-operation – and it's already international in a way in that Boko Haram is not only operating in Nigeria but it's crossed to Cameroon and Niger."
Annan also defended the role of business in promoting economic growth and equality. Despite growing accusations that African countries are being pressured into changing their laws to attract investment and setting aside thousands of acres for commercial investment under such initiatives as the G8-sponsored New Alliance programme, he argued that exploitative deals benefited neither side.
"First of all, the African governments have to look after their interests and make sure that the agreements they sign are mutually beneficial," he said. "The private sector and private sector leaders also need to realise that only agreements that are fair and mutually beneficial will stand the test of time because if it is unfair and unbalanced, a new leader will come in and throw it all out.
"We've seen it happen in Liberia, in Guinea and in other places and so if they are going to sign agreements, they really have to be fair and understand that if they sign an agreement that exploits the countries they're dealing with, they're going to pay a price."
Reflecting on his decade as secretary general, Annan said his proudest achievements had been helping to spearhead the fight against poverty through the creation of the millennium development goals, and his role in getting member states to accept the "responsibility to protect" people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
His biggest regrets remain the UN's inability to prevent the war in Iraq and the deaths of 23 people who were killed when a truck bomb destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003.
"We lost some wonderful and great colleagues in Baghdad, who had gone there to help and who were blown away," he said. "And the whole Baghdad experience: our inability to stop the war, which some of us knew was going to cause major problems – and it has. It divided the organisation, it divided the world; the council did not vote for it but we failed to stop the war and we are still living with the consequences."
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