The Three Disasters that Define Kofi Annan’s Legacy

Faisal Al Yafai

Within three years of Kofi Annan becoming the head of the UN’s global peacekeeping operations, two of the worst crimes of the 20th century had taken place, both under his watch. In 1994, the Rwandan genocide killed 800,000 people in just 100 days, most of them from the Tutsi minority, even while the UN had armed peacekeepers on the ground. A year later, on a different continent, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred in Srebrenica, again with UN troops on the ground.

Those two disasters deeply marked Annan’s thinking. Over the coming decade, he sought nothing less than to remake how nation states interacted with each other, subordinating them to international law. It led to his greatest achievement, but also to one of the greatest disasters for the United Nations.

Annan’s legacy is bound up with the story of Iraq and how a doctrine intend to restrain unchecked power instead handed one more casus belli to the powerful.

The failure to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994 was not the UN’s fault alone – Annan would later note that dozens of countries were approached for troops and all declined – but the stain was hard to wash off.

For some time, Annan retreated behind the formulation that the failure of the United Nations was also the failure of the international community. But by the time of the 10th anniversary in 2004, he had come to accept some personal responsibility. “This painful memory, along with that of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has influenced much of my thinking, and many of my actions, as secretary-general,” he said.

Whether as a means of atonement or as an expansion of the UN’s mandate, Annan, as secretary-general, made “responsibility to protect” (R2P) a central part of his mission. Annan believed that the international community, that vaguely defined entity that drew its power from nation states but expressed it via the bureaucracy of the UN, had a responsibility to step in when governments of nation states overreached. If governments could not, or would not, stop war crimes on their territory, the international community must.

The inevitable corollary, which Annan also promoted, was the idea of limits on national sovereignty. States had broadly been considered sovereign and more powerful states had no right to intervene in the affairs of weaker ones. But if R2P was to become a reality, state sovereignty would have to be weakened and subordinate to international law.

By the late 1990s, R2P was tested in the real world of blood and bodies, when, in 1999, Nato forces intervened in the bloody Yugoslav conflicts to stop the Serbian army killing Kosovar Albanians. The UK and the US, the two major proponents of the intervention, had proven that R2P could work in the modern world.

And yet Kosovo wasn’t a success for Annan. The Security Council had failed to agree on the intervention – Russia had vetoed the proposal – and so the mission had taken place under Nato auspices. Even the poster child for R2P wasn’t a success for the UN.

Six years would pass before Annan pushed through the formal adoption of the principle of responsibility to protect at the United Nations. It was considered his greatest achievement as secretary-general. Yet by the time it was approved, the principle of R2P had already been undermined, by the very two governments who had supported it in 1999.

In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a collision between the two ideas of R2P and limits on state sovereignty occurred because the US, while invoking the responsibility to protect Iraqis, refused to accept the decision of the Security Council, which refused to back the war, and pressed ahead with overturning Iraq’s state sovereignty.

The problem was not whether Saddam Hussein was repressing his own people – he undoubtedly was – but that it was not clear that repression required an immediate intervention. To overturn state sovereignty required a high bar, and while R2P provided the outline for it, it also required evidence of state-sponsored violence on a massive scale, which could not be alleviated any other way.

The responsibility to protect, which had started off as a way of protecting individuals from crimes by states, ended up being instrumentalized as a pretext for more powerful countries to do what they wished.

Thus the invasion of Iraq shattered any consensus that was forming around the responsibility to protect. In a larger sense, it halted the development of a new form of international relations based on international laws. After all, if the UN could not keep in check the country with the most powerful military, how could it expect other countries to be similarly bound by international rules?

The arguments around R2P continue to be advanced, but it is clear the momentum has shifted. Some powerful countries, such as Russia, display a cynical attitude toward it, selectively invoking it when it serves their narrow foreign policy goals, as over the annexation of Crimea. Others, like China, appear determined to return to state sovereignty, where governments are inviolable within their own borders.

Perhaps no one did as much to advance the movement toward a genuinely new way of conducting international relations as Kofi Annan. It remains part of his legacy, and one more story of the extraordinary way quotidian politics can shift the history of ideas, that the very ideas he supported to halt some of the worst crimes of the 20th century were used to bring about the first great military disaster of the 21st century.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.