Global peacemaker Annan’s frustrating record in the Middle East

Global peacemaker Annan’s frustrating record in the Middle East

With its intractable political crises, conflicts, foreign military interventions and human tragedies, the Middle East would always be an inevitable port of call for the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. That continued to be the case even after the completion of his second mandate at the helm of the organization, when Annan took on the role of UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria.

Inescapably, he looked at his record in the region with disappointment, as shown by many of his writings and speeches of recent years.

For instance, his opening remarks at the Munich Security Conference of 2015 began with a sobering note about the regional status quo: “No region today better illustrates the central theme of this year’s Munich Security Conference — the collapsing international order — than the Middle East.”

Despite his various frustrated attempts to defend international peace and security in the region, his role was neither expendable nor irrelevant. Quite the contrary: Annan fought for a world, and a Middle East, where mutual respect, common interests, and shared rules and institutions could work as an antidote for the inclinations of power politics and human nature’s worst instincts.

No other crisis in the region marked the Ghanaian diplomat’s tenure as UN secretary-general as well as the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Annan himself describes his inability to stop the move, unsanctioned by the UN Security Council, as his “darkest moment.” His memoir, “Interventions: A Life in War and Peace,” reflects on the unintended consequences of the war on the ground, regionally and its impact on the global credibility of the US as leader of the liberal order.

The run up to the invasion, during which he played an active role in constant talks with world leaders, as well as its aftermath, would place him forever at loggerheads with the administration of George W. Bush. He personally trusted his friend Colin Powell but was skeptical when the then-secretary of state, who himself was not in favor of the intervention, came to see him six weeks after the invasion with the news that US forces had found the "hard evidence" of Iraq’s program of weapons of mass destruction.

Annan was a gifted diplomat, full of charisma, as attested by anyone who had even brief contact with him.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

Iraq would haunt him in other ways. Following the Gulf War, as undersecretary-general of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Annan was initially in charge of the negotiations with the regime of Saddam Hussein for the sale of Iraqi oil in exchange for humanitarian relief. Almost a decade after it was launched, the “oil for food” program would turn into the UN’s worst corruption scandal to date, reaching the highest levels of the organization. Thousands of firms and more than a hundred prominent individuals around the world were involved in the payment of bribes to regime officials and received payments to participate in the scheme.

Just before leaving his office as UN secretary-general came some limited respite to his record in the region. In 2006, Annan helped secure a truce between Israel and Hezbollah following more than a month of heavy fighting between the pro-Iran militia and the Israeli army.

Annan’s stint as UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria lasted for little more than five months. The presentation of his six-point plan for peace in Syria, submitted to the UN Security Council, was even more short-lived. Annan was a gifted diplomat, full of charisma, as attested by anyone who had even brief contact with him. But political correctness did not hold him back. His resignation from the role in August 2012 was accompanied by a damning assessment of every relevant party involved.

In a statement delivered from the UN headquarters in Geneva, he scolded the members of the UN’s most relevant body concerned with international peace and security: “At a time when we need — when the Syrian people desperately need — action, there continues to be finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council.”

Annan blamed the Assad regime for agreeing to his proposed plan and then intentionally stepping up the slaughter of the opposition to undermine it. He believed the Syrian dictator should leave office “sooner or later.” Having witnessed other large-scale barbarities unfold and feeling he personally could and should have done more in the case of Rwanda, Annan warned about the scale of the disaster building up in Syria, to no avail.

The Nobel Peace Prize he received in 2001, in conjunction with the organization he served for almost five decades, suits him rather well. His failures and frustrations in the region are a reminder that one individual alone will struggle to make a difference when the odds are disproportionately against them. It also serves as a note of caution that the UN is little more than the sum of its parts, and it is mostly up to member states, especially the permanent members of the UN Security Council, to ensure that this critical institution fulfills its mandate.

Today, with the ideals he defended under attack on many fronts, there can hardly be a more important legacy than his to uphold.


  • Manuel Almeida, PhD, is a visiting fellow at the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics and Political Science, where his research focuses on social contract in the Arab state and its impact on governance and sustainable development. He is also partner at Firma, covering emerging markets and geopolitical risk. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida​
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view