Former leader details U.N. failures

September 4, 2012


— There is no “big idea” easier to pay homage to in principle, or harder to make work in practice, than the peacekeeping role of the United Nations. This is painfully clear in a new memoir by Kofi Annan, its former secretary-general.

The latest failure of the U.N. dream was Annan’s mediating mission to Syria. For months, he tried to cajole President Bashar al-Assad into stopping the killing and starting a political transition that would avert civil war. To which he received the standard answer to well-meaning U.N. missions: Go away. You are powerless to stop me.

Annan finally did walk away last month, ending his Syria mission and probably his career as a mediator. What will come next, it’s increasingly clear, is a paramilitary covert action, supported by the U.S. and most of its allies, to help the Syrian rebels accomplish what the U.N. could not.

Annan’s new memoir, “Interventions,” is a study in the failure of a noble idea. And it should cause readers to reflect why, in so many cases, the international community has been unable to gather sufficient force (or will) to prevent conflict. Another failure is probably ahead with Iran, where six years of escalating U.N. sanctions have not curbed Tehran’s nuclear program, and unilateral military intervention is increasingly likely.

I’ve long been a supporter of multilateral action through the U.N., and I still think the United States is most powerful when it operates under the legitimacy of international organizations. But the U.N. today is bootless; the will of most members for a change of government in Syria, for example, is too easily blocked by the veto of a single permanent Security Council member, such as Russia.

Annan gives a devastating account of some of the U.N.’s errors during his decades with the organization, especially in his description of the peacekeeping missions in the 1990s in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia, which he collectively describes as the organization’s “greatest of failures.”

Somalia was a project of Annan’s predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. A U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNOSOM II had been authorized in March 1993, described by Madeleine Albright, then U.N. ambassador, as “an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country.” But the American military contribution was restricted to a small special operations force hunting the rebel Gen. Mohamed Aidid; it communicated with Boutros-Ghali and didn’t coordinate with the rest of the U.N. force. When the Americans got slaughtered in a bloody ambush in Mogadishu (depicted unforgettably in the film “Black Hawk Down”), Washington bailed out and UNOSOM II quickly collapsed.

The Somalia mess made the U.N. so nervous about intervention that it ignored an appeal a few months later from its own representative in Rwanda that a genocidal massacre was about to begin there. In January 1994, Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the French Canadian commander of a small force called UNAMIR, cabled New York that the Hutu-led government in Kigali was planning the “extermination” of Tutsis.  He concluded his message, “Allons-y.” Let’s go. The U.N. did nothing. Three months later, 800,000 Rwandans were dead.

Annan was running peacekeeping operations at the time, and his deputy cabled the brave Dallaire insisting on “the need to avoid entering into a course of action that might lead to the use of force and unanticipated consequences.” That’s a sorry U.N. chapter, and it’s to Annan’s credit that he tells this and other stories so honestly.

The third debacle was Bosnia. In April 1993, the Security Council demanded that the town of Srebenica, filled with 60,000 Muslim refugees and encircled by Bosnian Serb forces, become a “safe area ... free from armed attacks.” The refugees waited more than two years for the U.N. to deliver. In July 1995, Gen. Ratko Mladic committed his infamous massacre. A month later, UNPROFOR finally intervened.

When Annan became secretary-general, the U.N. tried to bolster its peacekeeping efforts. It did better in East Timor, Kosovo and Libya in putting some teeth in the concept of a “responsibility to protect.” But the abiding story has been the U.N.’s limitations — in dealing with Iraq, the Palestinian issue, Iran and now Syria.

What to do? Albright and 15 other former foreign ministers just sent a letter to President Vladimir Putin saying they were “gravely disappointed” by Russia’s failure to support the U.N. mission and pleading for action to stop the war in Syria. Albright’s office says the Russians responded negatively. As the whole of this revealing book demonstrates, there’s got to be a better way to prevent ruinous conflicts.  

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.     


jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

Columnist David Ignatius has it right here. The U.N. has become a toothless debating society. The idea that countries will forego their own national interests and put the interests of their region, or their planet ahead of their own is a noble idea. The fact that is rarely works in practice simply tells us that despite those lofty goals, we all will act in our own self interest, when push comes shove. It is all very sad.

jafs 5 years, 3 months ago


But, there are some structural problems with the UN in it's current form, like the fact that a few members have "veto power", which negates the idea of democratic decision-making.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

The problems with the U.N. are too numerous to list. It's another one of those really good ideas that looks good on paper, but never seems to live up to it's lofty goals.

Do you really think Zimbabwe should have equal power and influence in the U.N. as say, the U.S.? If so, should they have equal responsibility in maintaining the institution, as in costs?

BTW - If 51% of the U.N. voted to return this continent to it's native inhabitants, you'd be O.K. with that and simply pack your bags and split?

jafs 5 years, 3 months ago

If the UN is supposed to be a collection of countries that work together to make decisions, then each member should have an equal vote, in my view.

Since the native inhabitants of this country were virtually wiped out in a genocidal manner, they don't exist to return the continent to - and, of course, you seem to be extending the power of the UN to make decisions regarding individual countries' internal maneuvers, which I'm not sure is the point of it.

What's the point of having an international organization that includes numerous countries if they're not all going to have an equal voice?

If one of the "big five" wants to, it can simply veto anything that a vast majority of other countries is in favor of - does that seem reasonable to you?

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

I don't know this for certain, but I would almost bet my bottom dollar that all five countries that have veto power insisted upon that as a condition of joining. Therefore, no Soviet veto power, no U.N., no American veto power, no U.N., etc. After that, every country that joined knew the conditions. They could join or not, their decision. So I would dispute your claim that it was set up as a democracy. It was set up the way it was set up. You may think it should be a democracy, and maybe you're right. But that's not what happened then and it's not what's happening now.

China might argue that it's size entitles it to a greater voice than Monaco. The Soviets used to argue that they should have multiple voices because they were a collection of various states. Valid arguments can be made both ways, or many different ways. I can't say which is best, but as the author of the piece points out, many failures have resulted despite U.N. efforts. Mass killings have happened in several areas, one is currently under way and the U.N. seems impotent to stop any of them. As I said, they've become a debating society, a propaganda tool to be taken back home (wherever home is) and sold to the public.

This United Nations, like the League of Nations before it, has failed in one of it's most important tasks. But I would not argue for it to simply go away. Because they could have another role, or many other roles. Treaties on the environment comes to mind. But peacekeeping? Their history of failure suggests that they are simply ill equipped to deal with that.

jafs 5 years, 3 months ago

I have no idea if that's right.

But, either way, it's a very flawed structure because of that lopsided power distribution.

I'd bet that many of the failures were because one of the big powerful members vetoed something.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

Sure, that's why action in Syria is so difficult right now. Because Russia is blocking action. But the alternative would have been a U.N. without Russia in it, because they would never have joined without a veto. The same with all of the "5".

Let me give you an analogy, though. Suppose all 50 states today had to re-enter the union as equals. California gets one vote, Alaska one, Rhode Island one. Would California join? I would guess not, so we'd have 49 states. Except that Texas and New York probably wouldn't join, nor would Florida and Illinois. So we'd be left with Delaware and New Hampshire voting for California to behave in a certain way and California laughing at them.

Perhaps the flaw isn't in how they structured the U.N. Maybe the flaw was in thinking that any structure at all could solve these types of problems. Maybe the solution is having one world superpower imposing it's will on everyone else, sort of a world policeman. No, wait, that's what we're doing, and doing it badly. So maybe there really is no structure that will stop people from behaving like people.

jafs 5 years, 3 months ago

People are a mixed bag, for sure - they're capable of great good, but also great evil.

Our problems are a combination of human nature and social systems, as far as I can tell. You can't "fix" human nature with systems, but better systems will lead towards better results.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 3 months ago

The veto thing is a hang over from the old League of Nations days. As others have pointed out, the BIGBOYS don't want to be outvoted by the little guys. Hence , the veto.

werekoala 5 years, 3 months ago

Be careful what you wish for. A UN powerful enough to override Russia is also a UN powerful enough to override the USA-led occupation of Iraq. Maybe that would be a gods thing, but they would also have terminated Israel long ago.

A strong world governing body runs into all the problems the USA had in terms of allocating decisions (one vote per country, and Liechtenstein has as much clout as we do, our votes based on population and China and India basically decide everything) PLUS the problem that not all citizens have equal say in their nations' decisions.

I think that the only solution is to have a new, loose confederation of states that has a minimum standard required to gain entry (divided powers of government, human rights, etc...). Then have some sort of bicameral legislative body (one based on population, the other equal between all members) much like congress has worked in our own country.

I also think this body could have free trade between its members, but not with the outside world. That simultaneously provides countries with an incentive to join this organization, and stops the race to the bottom our current path has us on with China.
I think an American worker can out compete a worker from any other country with similar wages and benefits. But no one can out compete slave labor. If we insist in trying we might as well scrap everything and go back to the days of working twelve hour days six days a week with no benefits. At least then we'd be keeping the money here.

We certainly can't go on pretending that all nations are created equal. If the UN is going to insist on that charade, they will find themselves increasingly irrelevant in this century.

jafs 5 years, 3 months ago

Those are interesting and thoughtful ideas.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

This bicameral legislative body that you speak of, isn't that what the Security Council and General Assembly are right now, though structured a little different than you described?

Robert Wells 5 years, 3 months ago

What caught my eye about this article is the fact that Jehovah's Witnesses have been saying for years that the UN would be a ruling power that could not bring about peace. Maybe we are looking in all the wrong places for Peace and Security!

oldbaldguy 5 years, 3 months ago

DeGaulle said "Nations do not have friends, they have interests>"

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