The Nation’s U.N. Correspondent Ian Williams on the Legacy of Kofi Annan and the Future of the U.N. Under Ban Ki-moon

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At the United Nations, the South Korean diplomat Ban Ki-moon is preparing to become the next secretary-general, replacing Kofi Annan, who has served since 1996. Ban Ki-moon officially assumes the role on January 1. Ban Ki-moon will become the first Asian to lead the world body in 35 years. In his last weeks in office, Kofi Annan has repeatedly criticized the Bush administration’s foreign policy and the invasion of Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In his last weeks in office, Kofi Annan has repeatedly criticized the Bush administration’s foreign policy and the invasion of Iraq.

KOFI ANNAN: I hope that next time, when he’s dealing with a broader threat to the international community, one will wait and seek the approval of the Security Council. As I’ve said, a government, a country, has a right to defend itself. But when it’s an issue of broader threat to the international community, it’s only the Security Council that has that legitimacy to authorize action on that basis.

AMY GOODMAN: Kofi Annan also criticized the international community’s response to the situation in Darfur.

KOFI ANNAN: Sudan has come under tremendous pressure from the international community to cooperate with that community to send in troops to help. Have we done all that we could to pressure the government of Sudan to do what it has to do? There are measures short of force that could be used. We have used them in other situations: political pressure, economic sanctions and isolation. And, of course, in the last resort, there is the use of force. Have we brought to bear on this situation all the capacity we have to pressure the government to bend?

AMY GOODMAN: Kofi Annan also warned a U.S. attack on Iran would be unwise and disastrous. Meanwhile, at his swearing-in ceremony last week, Ban Ki-moon outlined his vision of the United Nations.

BAN KI-MOON: By strengthening the three pillars of the United Nations — security, development and human rights — we can build a more peaceful, more prosperous and more just world for our succeeding generations. As we pursue our collective endeavor to reach that goal, my first priority will be to restore trust. I will seek to act as a harmonizer and bridge builder.

AMY GOODMAN: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. For more on Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, we have Ian Williams here in the studio. He’s the U.N. correspondent for The Nation magazine. His article, “Annan’s Principled Pragmatism,” appears in the new issue of the magazine. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

IAN WILLIAMS: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Talk about Kofi Annan, the last decade.

IAN WILLIAMS: I think he was a surprise. This is an impossible job. He’s got to be a diplomat, he’s got to be a standard-setter. And if he’s too censorious, if he goes to Ariel Sharon and says, “You’re a bloodthirsty murderer,” he can’t talk to him the following day. So, I mean, there’s always this balance about whether — and a tightrope walk about, “Did he say things strongly enough?” because he always said very moral things. He laid it down. For example, about the Iraq War, I mean, he had to be budged into saying it was illegal.

AMY GOODMAN: Ian Williams, we’re going to go to break, and then we’re going to come back and join the correspondent for The Nation magazine at the United Nations. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest today is Ian Williams. He is the correspondent for The Nation magazine at the United Nations and has written a piece called “Annan’s Principled Pragmatism.” He’s also written a book on rum, and we’re going to get to that, as we move into this holiday weekend. But first, your evaluation of Kofi Annan’s legacy.

IAN WILLIAMS: Well, I think, almost accidentally, I think he is really going to be regarded as one of the great secretary-generals, because it’s this very peculiar mix that the job requires, his ability to talk to people who are pretty evil and yet lay down moral standards, and it’s very difficult. You know, you can’t roll in the gutter and come out without some dirt on you. And what he did, his sort of natural laid-back, very sort of quiet demeanor allowed him to say things without being abusive and confrontational about it. But he always did say them.

So, he engaged the Israelis, at the same time he did keep reminding them that international law says that what they were doing was wrong. He kept on talking to Bush and Colin Powell, even though he kept laying down quietly that the war was illegal, that they shouldn’t have gone to war without Security Council support, and that the justification was, as we now know, rather tenuous.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And ironically, he came in as the U.S. candidate for secretary-general.

IAN WILLIAMS: It’s difficult to remember that now, isn’t it?

JUAN GONZALEZ: But increasingly, he appeared, especially in the years after, leading up to the invasion of Iraq, to rankle the administration in many ways, didn’t he?

IAN WILLIAMS: Well, almost anyone is. I was asked about Ban Ki-moon, for example, “How long would his honeymoon last?” And basically, it doesn’t take long between being sworn in as secretary-general and being sworn at in Fox TV in Washington, because he’s standing for things that the administration finds inconvenient. You know, the secretary-general has to represent the international community, 191 countries, and international law. And we know that Washington, especially this administration, even the previous one, often really was not concerned about what the rest of the world sought or about international law, when it went against domestic interests. So that’s — whoever holds that job, if he’s going to do the job properly, is going to run athwart of Washington.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your article also goes into the impact of the secretary-general, most recently, in the conflict in Lebanon and his ability to sort of forge a solution to what looked to be a growing crisis.

IAN WILLIAMS: That was because both sides trusted him. They thought this was someone with that they could do business, and also he was proactive, because he was quiet and laid-back, but he actually — I don’t think in previous years a secretary-general would have had the temerity to start constructing a peace proposal to get troops in line for the reinforced UNIFIL without the go-ahead from the Security Council. But basically, he was crafting this package at the time when Tony Blair and George Bush were telling the world that we didn’t need a ceasefire. And, you know, it’s patently absurd. If you’ve got thousands of people being killed and bombs raining down, everybody knows a ceasefire is exactly what you want. To say it’s premature is bloodthirsty, callous or stupid, or all of the three. But he was there, and he said we need a ceasefire, and he crafted the means to do it. And, I mean, just think, 10 years ago, Israeli and American policy for 15 years now has been to keep the U.N. out of the Middle East problem. And the Israelis were basically pleading with him for helping climbing down the poll that they climbed up into.

AMY GOODMAN: Ian Williams, his term was book-ended, Kofi Annan’s, by two genocides: Rwanda at the beginning, Darfur now at the end. Can you talk about Kofi Annan’s role in both?

IAN WILLIAMS: Well, it wasn’t just Rwanda. I mean, he was also a prominent figure in peacekeeping at the time with Srebrenica. And, you know, the easy let-out there, by the way, is it was Clinton’s presidential directive that said there will be no more peacekeeping forces, no reinforcement and no more money for the peacekeeping force in Rwanda. That’s the real culpability, which everybody forgets now. And certainly, I mean, he was a cog in a machine, and he hated it, I think. And that’s when he came, and he was serious about “never again.” The reports that he commissioned on Srebrenica and Rwanda were pretty merciless about the U.N.’s institutional failings, basically because they did what they were told, rather than upholding international standards. They were going along with the convenience of Washington and Europe in both places.

And with Darfur, once again in a quiet way, what he has been saying about the Sudanese government is unprecedented for a secretary-general, who will always defer to the member states. But he has repeatedly gone on about the Sudanese government and saying, you know, “You can’t do this. You’re breaking international law.” He sent inspectors, who have come back with these reports. And he’s been prodding the member states to something about it.

And in this context, I think the most significant thing that he did, which I think is really going to make the history books, is last year, he got 191 countries to agree, heads of state, to the responsibility to protect, which basically rips up international law. They have now reinterpreted international law to say that when a country commits mayhem against its own citizens, it’s an international responsibility to go and do something about it. That’s a huge change, because, you know, in the past when you murdered people, the international law said, “Hey, ain’t nobody’s business what you do.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the whole issue of the internal workings of the United Nations itself — the corruption scandals, the scandals with peacekeepers abusing populations in some areas? How well did Kofi Annan handle those issues?

IAN WILLIAMS: As well as he could under the — I mean, more promptly. First of all, the tendency in the past would have been to deny them. And he actually did things about them. I remember, with the peacekeeping — these aren’t troops under U.N. command. These are, countries sent their own military detachments, so the U.N. doesn’t have that much control over their behavior or their — what all he can do, the secretary can do, is to push those countries into exercising military discipline on their troops.

And I think, no, the corruption stories — look, they’re grossly exaggerated. The Oil-for-Food is a classic. Ten billion dollars was handed over from the Oil-for-Food Program to the Iraqi occupation — to the U.S. occupation. No one has discovered where that money has gone. Ten billion dollars went to people like Halliburton. The Bush crony, in fact, has spent four or five years now trying to find out where that $10 billion of Oil-for-Food money went. It’s never mentioned in that context. Oil-for-Food is the U.N. scandal. The U.N. scandal was, allegedly, the head of that took $140,000. He denies it. And he didn’t take it from the fund. He took it allegedly as commission. He says it was his own money. And the reason they found out about it was he declared it over four years. But $140,000 versus $10 billion, and see how much fuss is made of it. But there are people on the conservative Republican side who think that the U.N. is a threat to American sovereignty and the ability of the administration to do what it wants when it wants. So, like, it’s always going to be under attack.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does Kofi Annan go now, after a decade of being secretary-general? And who is Ban Ki-moon?

IAN WILLIAMS: Well, Kofi is claiming he’s going to spend some time in Ghana, and most of us think he’s going to get very bored very quickly. But he’s going to spend time between Europe —

AMY GOODMAN: Where he was born.

IAN WILLIAMS: — and Switzerland, yes, and then Ghana, his home patch, which he hasn’t been to for a long time, apart from visiting.

And Ban Ki-moon is an interesting character. In many ways, he’s very like Kofi. He’s quiet, laid-back. You know, he’s not confrontational. But I was impressed before the — and during his campaign, which was unprecedented, that they had campaigns. I asked him about the International Criminal Court. And now, knowing that John Bolton has very strong views on the International Criminal Court and has a veto, he could have said, “Well, of course, I will follow, you know, the decisions of the United Nations or the international community.” He didn’t. He said, “I support the International Criminal Court.” And so, he picks his words very carefully. When he says that, he’s basically saying, “I have principles, and I don’t care who knows it.”

And he’s, in some ways, remarkably lively. We had him at the annual correspondents’ dinner, and he sang — did Frank Sinatra imitations — Ban Ki-moon is coming to town — which was a bit of a revelation to all of us. We weren’t expecting this non-Confucian mode of [inaudible].

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the issue of structural reform at the United Nations and greater power-sharing, especially of the nations of the Third World in the world body? How do you see that he will move forward on that?

IAN WILLIAMS: I’m not sure he can, really. I mean, this is — first of all, you’ve got to sort of decouple. When people talk about reforms, especially in Washington, what they mean is: How can we make this organization do what it’s told? That’s the beginning end of everything of reform, as far as Washington is concerned. How do we stop it passing anti-Israel resolutions? That’s reform. And, you know, the organization itself, as long as the U.S. and the other big powers actually appoint people inside the secretariat, you can’t have proper reform.

And none of them — I mean, a few weeks ago, we actually — a U.S. presidential patronage appointment for the head of the World Food Programme, a former editor of The Washington Times. You know, this is a very questionable appointment. But basically, I understand, they were told, “By the way, we won’t pay, we’ll cut our contributions to the World Food Programme, unless you’ll appoint her.” And that’s not reform. That’s part of the spoil system.

On the Security Council, look, pragmatically, I think non-aligned has got to accept some responsibility here. As long as they send “yes” people, “yes” countries along as temporary members, then they’re not going to have as much influence. And I don’t really think that adding new permanent members is a solution. It’s as though the solution to the British House of Lords, when it was hereditary, was to double the number of hereditary players. You don’t sort of make something that’s wrong righter by doubling the amount of it. You need proper accountability on the part of the members who are already there.

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