Analysis – By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Oct 29 (IPS) – Trygve Lie of Norway, the first U.N. secretary-general, described his job as ”the most impossible on earth.”
As chief administrative officer of the 191-member United Nations, the secretary-general also holds one of the most diplomatically sensitive posts in the world. The conventional wisdom is that he is not expected to play politics — or interfere in the internal affairs of any member state.
But still, if the secretary-general is to be more of a ”general” than a ”secretary,” according to many U.N. watchers, he has the legitimate right to express his views — however unpalatable to some — in his capacity as head of a supreme world political body.
The thin line of distinction has often been blurred. But one of the skills of a competent secretary-general is to diplomatically walk that delicate line without making political enemies.
The present incumbent, Kofi Annan of Ghana, has been politically crucified in recent weeks because of some recent statements — specifically about the war on Iraq — that seem unacceptable to the administration of U.S. President George W Bush.
In September, Annan declared that the U.S.-led military invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was ”illegal” and violated the U.N. Charter, provoking criticism from the White House and from U.S. politicians.
â€?U.N. Chief Ignites Firestorm by calling Iraq War ‘Illegal’,â€? is how the ‘New York Times’ described the controversy.
U.S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas said: â€?Kofi Annan and those on the campaign trail who share this view must explain the inconvenient fact that if they had their way, Saddam (Hussein) would be in power (in Iraq), mass graves would still be growing in size, and tens of millions of newly liberated people would still be under the boot of a brutal dictator.”
Annan has also provoked the Bush administration by saying its war on Iraq has increased terrorism, not decreased it.
At a press briefing last week, one U.N. correspondent asked the secretary-general pointedly: ”I know that U.N. policy is to say that you don’t meddle in U.S. internal affairs.”
”But basically, you said recently that the war in Iraq was illegal. Before that you said that terrorism is on the rise, contradictory to what President Bush has said. That is being interpreted as you batting for (Democratic presidential candidate) John Kerry. Is that the case?â€?
Annan, who usually keeps his cool even under the most trying circumstances, was testy.
”I think you answered your own question (that U.N. policy is not to interfere in internal affairs). You don’t want to pull me in; why are you pulling me in?”
But, added the U.N. chief: ”I think, when I make these comments, I make them from my own knowledge and from my own experience. I’m not saying them to support one side or the other. As secretary-general, I talk to lots of people, I travel the world, and I observe.”
”And I have comments that I made, and these are comments that I would have made whether there were elections or not. So don’t infer anything from the comments and the observations that I make,” Annan said.
The secretary-general is also refusing to send international employees to organise the elections in Iraq next January, drawing more angry reactions, not only from the Bush administration but also from the U.S.-installed interim government in Baghdad.
Many people believe the United States wants elections in Iraq so soon despite the ongoing violence in the country just to prove it has succeeded in bringing democracy to the nation — and that it wants U.N. participation to provide legitimacy to those elections.
One right-wing U.S. newspaper called Annan an ”obstructionist” working to ”undercut the role of the United States in global affairs — in particular, U.S. leadership in rebuilding Iraq.”
While the secretary-general is expected to be the ultimate diplomat in dealing with 191 member states — at times almost simultaneously — without ruffling any political feathers, the task grows if the U.N. chief happens to be up for re-election.
The secretary-general must then be sure not to antagonise any of the member states, least of all the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.
When Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt failed to win a second term in late 1996, it was because he irritated a single member state: the United States.
Despite the overwhelming majority in the Security Council voting for him (14-1), he was drummed out of office when Washington cast its veto against him.
Conversely, a secretary-general, who is not speculating on his next election, is more likely to be more forthright and independent-minded than plagued by nightmares of re-election.
This is more so the reason why a 1996 study jointly commissioned by the U.S.-based Ford Foundation and Sweden’s Dag Hammarskjold Foundation proposed that a U.N. secretary-general should serve only one term — possibly a single, non-renewable, seven-year term instead of the current limitless five-year stints.
This issue is expected to resurface when a high-level U.N. panel releases a report in November calling for major reforms in the world body and radical changes to the U.N. system.
Annan, who is on his second five-year term, apparently has no plans to run again when he completes his assignment in December 2006.
So, obviously, he also has no reason to curry favour with any member states, including the veto-wielders in the Security Council, likely explaining why the secretary-general has been more outspoken recently than ever before, according to U.N. watchers.
But what has irked the White House most is the timing: Annan’s negative comments have come when Bush is in the midst of a re-election campaign, with polls due next Tuesday.
As John Danforth, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said of the secretary-general’s comments about the legality of the war on Iraq: ”If I had been his (Annan’s) adviser, which I wasn’t, I would have advised him not to say it at all — and if he was going to say it at all, not to say it now. But he did, and there’s a difference of opinion.”
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was equally critical of Annan’s timing. ”I don’t think it was a useful statement to make at this point.”
”What does it gain anyone?â€? Powell added. â€?We should all be gathering around the idea and the prospect of helping the Iraqi people, helping the Iraqi government, and not gett4ing into these kinds of side issues which are not relevant any longer.” (END/2004)
“Other News” is a personal initiative seeking to provide information that should be in the media but is not, because of commercial criteria. It welcomes contributions from everybody. Work areas include information on global issues, north-south relations, gobernability of globalization. The “Other News” motto is a phrase which appeared on the wall of Barcelonaâ€™s old Customs Office, at the beginning of 2003:â€?What walls utter, media keeps silentâ€?. Roberto Savio