By Thalif Deen*
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, who is a creature of member states, rarely challenges or defies his creators. But Kofi Annan did both. Surprisingly, he lived to tell the tale– but paid an unfairly heavy price after being hounded by the United States.
When the US invaded Iraq in March 2003, he described the invasion as “illegal” because it did not have the blessings of the 15-member UN Security Council, the only institution in the world body with the power to declare war and peace.
But the administration of President George W. Bush went after him for challenging its decision to unilaterally declare war against Iraq: an attack by a member state against another for no legally-justifiable reason. The weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), reportedly in Iraq’s military arsenal, which was one of the primary reasons for the invasion, were never found.
Subsequently, Annan came under heavy fire for misperceived lapses in the implementation of the “Oil-for-Food” program which was aimed at alleviating the sufferings of millions of Iraqis weighed down by UN sanctions.
Ian Williams, author of UNtold: The Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War, said, back in August 2018: “While I am heartened by the outpouring of appreciation for Kofi Annan, I can’t help but notice the contrast with the sound of silence when the Rupert Murdoch press and its followers had his back to the wall with the spurious Oil-for-Food crisis they had manufactured.” All too many stood back and stayed silent as Annan spent long months under constant sniper fire, he recounted.
While few now remember the Oil for Food crisis, said Williams, it was billed at the time as the “greatest financial scandal” in history. He said the so-called crisis “was a savage assault on Kofi’s greatest asset– and his perceptible integrity took a severe personal toll, as people who should have known better kept their silence.”
“It was in fact one of the greatest “fake news” concoctions in history, almost up there with Iraqi WMDs. That was no coincidence since many of the sources for both were the same,” said Williams, a senior analyst who has written for newspapers and magazines around the world, including the Australian, The Independent, New York Observer, The Financial Times and The Guardian.
Annan was also the only Secretary-General who challenged the General Assembly for continuing to offer its podium to political leaders who come to power by undemocratic means or via military coups.
In 2004, when the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor to the present African Union (AU), barred coup leaders from participating in African summits, Annan singled it out as a future model to punish military dictators worldwide.
Annan went one step further and said he was hopeful that one day the General Assembly, the highest policy making body in the Organization, would follow in the footsteps of the OAU and bar leaders of military governments from addressing the General Assembly. Annan’s proposal was a historic first. But it never came to pass in an institution where member states, not the Secretary-General, rule the roost.
The outspoken Annan, a national of Ghana, also said that “billions of dollars of public funds continue to be stashed away by some African leaders — even while roads are crumbling, health systems are failing, school children have neither books nor desks nor teachers, and phones do not work.” He also lashed out at African leaders who overthrow democratic regimes to grab power by military means.
Meanwhile, some of the military leaders who addressed the UN included Fidel Castro of Cuba, Col Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, Amadou Toure of Mali (who assumed power following a coup in 1991 but later served as a democratically elected President), and Jerry Rawlings of Ghana (who seized power in 1979, executed former heads of state but later served as a civilian president voted into power in democratic elections). As the International Herald Tribune reported, Rawlings was “Africa’s first former military leader to allow the voters to choose his successor in a multi-party election”.
In October 2020, the New York Times reported that at least 10 African civilian leaders refused to step down from power and instead changed their constitutions to serve a third or fourth term – or serve for life. These leaders included Presidents of Guinea (running for a third term), Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda, Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ghana and Seychelles, among others. The only country where the incumbent was stepping down was Niger. Condemning all military coups, the Times quoted Umaro Sissoco Embalo, the president of Guinea-Bissau, as saying: “Third terms also count as coups”
And back in October 2006, the civilian government in Thailand was ousted when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York to address the UN General Assembly sessions. Instead of returning home, where he was likely to face charges of corruption, Thaksin opted to fly to London, where he was in virtual political exile.
The bloodless military coup against a democratically elected government in Thailand forced the United States to review its military relations and suspend aid to one of Washington’s long-standing political allies in Southeast Asia.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which was seeking UN sanctions against the military government in neighboring Myanmar (Burma), said the Thai military coup was a “U-turn” for democracy in that politically stable region.
Still, the best guarantee for survival — for visiting world leaders during the September UN General Assembly sessions– is to include all their military leaders, including the chiefs of the armed forces, the navy and the air force, in the country’s UN delegation so that they will be within sight at the General Assembly Hall – and not back home taking over the leadership of the country in military coups.
*Thalif Deen is a Senior Editor & Director UN Bureau, Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency. He is the author of a newly-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That” from which this article is adapted. Published by Amazon, the book is mostly a satire peppered with scores of anecdotes– both serious and hilarious. The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows:) https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/