HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR: You recently said that Africa, far too often, was a “cocktail of disasters.” Why? Why are all these things happening on the continent now?
KOFI ANNAN: There are many reasons, and as secretary-general of the UN-and as an African-I have been particularly concerned about the situation. There’s good news coming out of Africa, as well: the democratic transfer of power in Senegal, in Nigeria and in South Africa; there is positive economic news from Botswana, as there was from Mozambique until the floods. But we do have crises, and people see Africa as a continent in crisis. That in turn affects investment-nobody wants to invest in a bad neighbourhood. I’ve been trying to work with African leaders to calm these troubled waters. It’s a question of management, it’s a question of leadership, it’s a question of greed and it’s a question of ethnic conflict.
Recently, the UN University did a study. We discovered that one of the main reasons why we have these conflicts is that one ethnic or religious group feels discriminated against by the government. The discrimination itself does not provoke conflict, but discrimination is often exploited-by leaders, by the elite-for political advantage, and this can lead to an explosions. So it is important for governments to treat their citizens fairly, and get the message across to each group, and each citizen, that the government belongs to them, too; that they can expect to share in the economic welfare of the country; that the law works for them. This makes conflict less likely.
We’ve been trying to work with governments to strengthen basic institutions, to come up with regulatory systems to avoid conflict. But there is also greed. In most countries where you have natural resources-diamonds or oil, say-it’s a blessing, but in some African countries it has also become a curse. You get war profiteers who are not interested in peace-the first security council report on sanction-busting in Angola was quite revealing in this respect. We are going to set up another group to look into the exploitation of resources in Congo, which we consider part of the reason for the prolonged war there. We have the same situation in Sierra Leone, too: it’s diamonds again, at the bottom of that.
HLG: Some people have suggested that Africa’s arbitrary national borders are partly to blame. The borders haven’t much changed since the continent was carved up in Berlin more than a century ago. Do you think the time has come for border reform?
KA: I think it would make matters worse. Any attempt to change the borders of Africa would lead to greater conflict and I think the Organisation for African Unity rightly recognised that early on. In fact, the only border change that has taken place in post-independence Africa is the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Also, there was the case where the Ousa strip was taken away from Libya and given to Chad, but that was the result of a decision by the International Court of Justice. Beyond that there have been no border changes and I think that is wise.
What we need to do is to find a way of getting the governments to work together. You are beginning to see sub-regional groupings: you have them in southern, western and central Africa and the east Africans have been making an effort too. We have a situation today between Nigeria and Cameroon on the Bakasi peninsula, where there is oil: both countries are claiming it, and the case is a headache for the International Court of Justice. We are trying to keep them away from each other-in a situation like that, they should exploit the resource jointly, rather than fight over it.
HLG: The New York Times ran an editorial critical of the UN’s military operations in Africa. They wrote: “Sierra Leone demonstrates the danger of sending a weak and inadequately trained peacekeeping force into a country where there is not yet a peace to keep… The UN’s mistakes in Sierra Leone should not be repeated in Congo.” Do you agree?
KA: I think there is some justice in what the Times said. The UN goes in to maintain peace, not to impose it, and we should not forget that we went into Sierra Leone after a peace agreement had been signed by everybody. But some of the troops that arrived in Sierra Leone were not as effectively equipped as we would have liked. Since the UN has no troops, we borrow them from governments; we tell the governments how the troops must be equipped. The UN then reimburses the governments providing the troops, at the rate of roughly $1,000 per soldier per month. For some governments that doesn’t cover the cost, which means they are subsidising us. And because certain member states do not pay their dues, we have not always been able to reimburse the contributors. At one point we owed them about $800m, which means that some of these poor countries are effectively granting an interest-free loan to the UN. So it can be difficult to get governments to sign on.
We must also not forget that we’re living in an era where most governments do not tolerate casualties in a military operation. That is the attitude of the Pentagon today-they are not going to get into risky situations, particularly after Somalia. So governments with the capacity to send troops do not come forward, and those who are willing to do it don’t always have the capacity-but it isn’t until they come out of the planes and boats and get on the ground that you discover they’re short.
We’ve had situations where we were so desperate that we got soldiers without equipment, and then got equipment from a third country. A classic case was Bosnia: at the height of the crisis, we needed troops and couldn’t get them. Eventually, Country A offered troops, but no equipment. Then Country B offered equipment and to train the troops. Country A was a third world country, and Country B was a European country. Just a month before the troops arrived, Country B told us, “Our constitution doesn’t allow us to train foreign troops on our soil.” So we started negotiating with Country C, another European country, and they came back with the same reply. Finally, a fourth country, Country D, offered to do it, so we had to move the equipment from Country B to Country D, and train the troops from Country A, then inject them into Bosnia. That took a year. So whose fault is it when things fail? It’s the UN’s. But the UN is only as strong as its member states.
HLG: Do you believe that it is sometimes better, given the nature of the situation, to commit troops even if they are poorly prepared?
KA: The question is should the international community stand back and do nothing because we don’t have the perfect solution? Or should we try to make a difference with the limited resources we have? The security council has often said, “Do something-we need to try to help.” And so we move in with the sometimes inadequate resources that we have.
HLG: Of course, even if the will is there, peacekeeping is not always a straightforward proposition. In the case of Bosnia, for example, you have conceded that the UN failed to comprehend the evil it was confronting. Do you think that UN peacekeeping ought to make moral distinctions or political judgements?
KA: I think peacekeeping has come a long way. In the beginning, peacekeepers were perceived as a neutral force that would move into a situation at the request of two protagonists, with their cooperation. But when the situation is not that clear-cut-when one party is grievously wronged by the other side-can you remain neutral? If you are not going to remain neutral, then you have to go in with a force to stop the aggressor-as the US and the coalition did when they went to push Iraq out of Kuwait. It becomes difficult if you go in with a neutral posture in a situation where the parties have invited you and co-operated from the beginning and then the situation changes. That’s what happened in Sierra Leone: both parties signed an agreement and undertook to co-operate with the UN, then one side turned on the UN forces.
HLG: When you opened the UN General Assembly in 1999, you said, “If we are given the means-in Kosovo and in Sierra Leone, in East Timor-we have a real opportunity to break the cycles of violence, once and for all.” What do you say to critics who say that this would transform the UN into a world government?
KA: I don’t think anyone wants the UN to be a world government. But let me put that quotation in a broader context. I was addressing the security council on the question of intervention. We had just come out of an intervention in Kosovo which divided the security council. China and Russia, two permanent members, were opposed. India, which is not a permanent member, joined them in a resolution condemning the intervention in Kosovo. That intervention, with our security council endorsement, raised real issues for the organisation. Our charter stresses respect for national sovereignty, but the charter also urges us to protect the individual and to protect future generations from the scourge of war. When the two principles come into conflict-the protection of the individual versus national sovereignty-which takes precedence? How do you resolve that conflict?
We live in an era of human rights. Most of the world agrees that the principles of human rights are universal, even though they are not applied equally in all countries. So the test for us is how we shift from the emphasis on state security, state protection, and state sovereignty to an emphasis on the protection of the individual within the state. How do we make that switch? The debate is still going on, in the universities, in the security council itself, in the general assembly. I have a task force, and we are in touch with other research centres. I would hope that quite soon, we will have some ideas that will help the security council. Not necessarily strict, rigid guidelines, but an understanding that will help them to arrive at a consensus about when to act, and when not to. Because in all these situations if the world is united-if the council is united-it’s much more effective.
I was at an event in Geneva-I think it was the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights-and there was a panel discussion. One panelist wondered what would have happened if the declaration had existed before the second world war. Of course, the declaration came out of that war, and the Holocaust. But if it had existed before, would it have propelled governments and individuals to action? At least it sets a benchmark, a yardstick, so that people can speak out if states are breaking it.
HLG: Do you think it would have made a difference?
KA: It may not have stopped the Holocaust, but it would have had an impact. Today, no nation abuses its citizens with impunity. We may not send in troops, but the public attention and criticism is a real deterrent.
HLG: Even with the declaration, the international community was unable to stop the genocide in Rwanda. And one of the things I’ve most admired about your tenure as secretary-general is your willingness to undertake self-analysis and self-criticism on behalf of the UN. The Carlson report on Rwanda-which you commissioned, and embraced-criticises you for not sharing General Romeo Dallaire’s telegraph with the security council. In that telegraph, Dallaire warned of imminent genocide in Rwanda, and he requested permission to move against the Hutu extremists who were planning it. You were quoted as saying that you would not have done anything differently in regard to Dallaire’s warning, but subsequently you embraced this report. Has your position changed on Rwanda?
KA: I’m glad you asked that question. Rwanda, as I have said, was a real nightmare for everyone. What happened there will be on the conscience of all of us. The Dallaire cable said, “We have information that there may be attempts to kill the Tutsi population.” It went on, “I don’t know why this informer came to me. Why this sudden change of heart? Is this genuine? Is it a set-up? What do I do?” In any situation where you have intelligence, you have to analyse it and he was asking legitimate questions. Even though he passed information on, he raised doubts about it.
What’s more, the UN forces lacked the capacity to act. We had three battalions: one from Belgium, one from Bangladesh, and one from Ghana. And we have to put this in perspective: the Rwanda crisis occurred a few months after the Somalia debacle, where American troops were killed. We were moving into Rwanda while we were withdrawing from Somalia. If the soldiers did something for which they did not have the means and the mandate, if any of the soldiers got killed, it was clear that the rest would be withdrawn. And in fact, that did happen: when ten Belgians got killed in Rwanda, the Belgian contingent, which was the best equipped, was withdrawn. The Bangladeshis were instructed to protect themselves only and General Dallaire said, “Redeploy them out.” So the fear was that first, they didn’t have a mandate and second, if they had gone in and lost soldiers, the force would have unravelled. Governments would withdraw, just as the US withdrew from Somalia.
The notion that the security council was not informed is also a bit of… I won’t say it’s not correct-it’s correct in the sense that one particular cable was not given to the council. But the reports that went to the council indicated the urgent nature, the danger, the deteriorating situation and even recommendations that the UN force should be increased. And the council said, “Withdraw everybody, it’s too dangerous,” and the force was reduced. The point I’m making is that we have to draw lessons from Rwanda, but we have to draw the right lessons. Some people are giving the impression that the international community did not act because they did not get a cable, because they did not have the information. That is blatantly false. The overwhelming reason for the failure in Rwanda was lack of will and lack of resources. The Carlson report makes that quite clear.
HLG: I wonder if we could talk more generally about ethnic violence. In 1900, WEB Du Bois-the great African American philosopher who ended his days as a citizen of your native land, Ghana…
KA: He’s buried there.
HLG: Du Bois wrote that the problem of the 20th century would be the colour line. With ethnic violence raging in 48 nations since 1992, from Turkestan to Tibet, one could claim that the problem of the 21st century is the problem of ethnic difference. How do you see it?
KA: At one extreme, you have ethnic cleansing; groups seeking their own identity. Before, you had the cold war, which helped contain some of the crises that we are looking at today: a lot of countries were client states, so the US and Russia could contain conflicts by regulating the flow of weapons and aid. Now these countries have been cut loose, so there is a proliferation of conflicts that nobody is in a position to influence. We’re not dealing with established governments, with states: some of these countries have broken up into regions and you are dealing with warlords who do not care about the outside world. If you’re dealing with an established government, you could say, “We will cut off economic aid: you will not be recognised, and so on…” But how do you explain that to a warlord who doesn’t care, who may not even understand? At the other extreme, you have the phenomenon of globalisation. I think the multinationals saw it first: they work across boundaries without government involvement, and now governments are playing catch-up.
HLG: What do you think of the critics of globalisation who have taken to the streets in protest against the WTO and the World Bank?
KA: I know that those who demonstrated want to see the third world do better: they want to see third world debt eliminated, they want to see more assistance to the third world. But what they often seem not to understand is that third world countries want access to trade. They want to trade themselves out of poverty, not live on assistance. If one were to open up the developed world markets to some of these countries, they would gain billions more than they get in assistance. So we need to be clear that the third world wants to be included in the global market.
Globalisation can have very positive effects; but there are also negative effects. In Davos, I proposed a global compact with the private sector. The big corporations have enormous resources: power, management, technology, money. So I asked them to join me in working on human rights, labour standards, and the environment. A company need not wait for a specific government to pass a law in order to pay a decent wage, or refuse to employ children, or recognise the rights of individuals working for them. These big corporations could influence governments in countries where they operate.
HLG: What about the relationship between democracy and economic progress? China claims it needs time to develop economic institutions and to develop a middle class, before democracy can be successful. In Africa, some of the most stable states are single-party “democracies”-including Ghana.
KA: I do not buy the argument that in order to maintain economic progress and development one has to be autocratic. I think the best way to release the energies and creativity of a population is to empower it, and you do that through education, through health care, by giving them an opportunity to have a say in the decisions that concern them. We saw this in Asia: one of the driving forces behind economic development in Asia has been a heavy investment in education, from Singapore to India to Malaysia. The high-tech industry in Bangalore (worth $8o billion a year), is there because of that investment.
HLG: What about the one-party state here, in America’s backyard. Do you think the US should alter its policy toward Castro and Cuba?
KA: I believe that the sanctions against Cuba have outlived their usefulness. The UN General Assembly has adopted several resolutions recommending that the sanctions be lifted. Of course, I don’t make policy in Washington, but my sense is that change would have come much sooner if Cuba had a normal relationship with the US. We have seen what happens to societies that open up to the outside world, we have seen how fast change has come, in Russia, in China, in other countries. In my view, the sanctions serve no purpose now, except for a narrow political interest.
HLG: Cuba is one example of the ways the US finds itself at odds with the international community. How do you assess the relationship between the US and the UN?
KA: It’s improving. We’ve had a difficult relationship, which is unfortunate considering that the UN is headquartered there-the UN is a New York institution and we contribute to the local culture and economy. I think the US needs the UN and vice versa, and now that the US has taken the first step toward clearing its financial obligations, I think the US can regain its leadership position. People look to the US for leadership. But because the US has not paid its dues, because it has not found it easy to band together with other countries to reform the organisation, or because it is seen as dictating to the other member states, there has been resistance to US leadership. I think that is beginning to change: I think relationships are improving, and I hope it will continue.
First published in “Transition” 86, vol 10, no 2, www.TransitionMagazine.com ©2000 WEB Du Bois Institute and Duke University Press