The International Community (3/3): A Secretary-General for the United Nations

Kofi Annan in Interventions, A Life in War and Peace

                The Security Council is generally considered the keystone of the UN. Unlike the General Assembly, it has a decision-making power that is binding on all, including States that are not members of the Organization. This main body, according to the Charter of the United Nations, has a considerable theoretical power which, however, requires not only that a qualified majority be gathered during its votes but also that none of the five permanent members of the institution be an obstacle. 

The status of the Secretary-General is exactly the opposite: he has only few powers, which are summarized in Article 99 of the Charter, according to which he may refer to any situation threatening or affecting international security. Suffice it to say that the field of action is limitless on the condition that the Secretary-General is endowed with a great moral authority and a charism to appeal to world opinion as well as a great sense of diplomatic negotiation in his relation with States and also courage to oppose at times, at his own risk and peril, to the most powerful of them.

 There were great General-Secretaries: the Swede Dag Hammarskjöld, who died on a mission to Africa in 1961 in an air accident; the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali who knew how to stand up to the United States in the Middle East affairs and paid him from his post; the Ghanaian Kofi Annan, man of synthesis and of a supreme balance between the western world and the emerging or developing countries. No woman has ever been Secretary-General, but many of them could have been, including Kristalina Georgieva, now head of the IMF, and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson who was United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. the latter list is not exhaustive.

 In 1996, the choice of a new Secretary-General was to take up his duties at the beginning of 1997. Outgoing Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had received strong support from France. He was a remarkable francophone, which was an important criterion for Paris in choosing the incumbent of the position. His strong personality, his commitment to the issues of the Middle East from which he came, the difficulties in reforming the UN, were likely to make him a perfect scapegoat out of convenience and in any case earned him much enmity.

After the tragedy in Cana, which occurred in April 1996 in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon, under the protection of UNIFIL, which had been bombed on the orders of Prime Minister Shimon Peres by the Israeli army as part of Operation «Grapes of Anger» and claimed more than 100 victims, mostly women and children, the United States announced that it would not support the renewal of the Secretary-General’s mandate. The latter was committed to an international investigation into the Cana tragedy. It should be noted that this implicit threat of veto was not always taken to its proper measure by all the main actors in the election, that is to say the permanent members, including France, even though it emanated from a major power and concerned an issue of high interest.

For my part, I was convinced that Kofi Annan, a senior official of the Organization, had the capacity for the function in question. I had no more insight than others, but my duties in New York, where I had been entrusted with following the issue of the UN Secretariat and supporting the French presence, had enabled me to travel through the “Glass Building” to every nook and cranny. That’s how I knew K. Annan and his teams. With the then Assistant Secretary-General in charge of personnel and security, the chemistry had immediately worked

We even worked together outside the strict framework of the Organization because he chaired the Board of Directors of the United Nations International School. This school, which was mainly home to children of international civil servants and diplomatic community, was a private institution but maintained a strong link with the United Nations, in whose vicinity it was established. One third of the members were appointed by the UN Secretary-General, one third were chosen by the parents of pupils and the last third were elected annually by the two previous categories. K. Annan asked me to be a member of the Board under the third category. I informed my Ambassador who he gave me his consent, so I sat for four years in the institution’s governing body.

This experience allowed me to appreciate in the long run the way of working of the Chairman of the Board and his talent for consensus. It also gave me an opening on the American environment from which the extra-territoriality of the United Nations could distance itself. The Director of the United States, Dr Blaney, was also an American and I formed a friendly relationship with him and his wife, born Gulbenkian, who was then President of a University in New York.

I lost sight of K. Annan during my first stay in Moscow but we met again in the autumn of 1995 at the Quai d’Orsay. He was then Deputy Secretary-General in charge of Peacekeeping Operations, an eminently political function within the United Nations. Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali had just entrusted him with the mission of Special Representative for the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. His stay in Paris was a stopover on the way to Zagreb where his headquarters would be. K. Annan invited me to visit him in Croatia, suggesting that his intention was to accomplish his mission but to return as quickly as possible to New York. I interpreted this last indication as a sign that great maneuvers were already underway for the election of the Secretary-General in the following autumn, a year later, although no candidate has yet declared himself. This was logical, because the UN Charter giving a Secretary-General the right to seek a second term, it would have been premature and fatal to stand in the way of the Secretary-General in office.

Kofi Annan abided in every respect by an attitude of prudence and decency, and he never mentioned, even in private, a possible ambition for the office. But it was clear to me that if the outgoing Secretary-General was unable to run, he would stand up. Not only did he have a perfect knowledge of the United Nations system, in which he had exercised both at the headquarters in Geneva and New York but also on the ground, but also the second mandate of the Secretary-General was to be retained by Africa, under the unwritten rule of geographic rotation.

Returning from Zagreb where we went to visit him with Ambassador Jean de Gliniasty, then Director of the United Nations Department and International Organizations at the Quai d’Orsay, and where he had impressed us with his mastery and his olympian calm among his multinational team in a conflict area, our gaze turned to New York where the American pressure increased on Boutros-Ghali to discourage him from running again. The threat of a veto became clearer and credible. It was necessary for Egypt to put an end to the support of a candidate who was supposed to represent it and for the person himself, out of realism and to save face in front of such adversity, to announce «suspending his candidacy» to the renewal of his mandate, so that alternative solutions appear with other African candidates finally officially declared.

But the process had already taken a long time to get there and the fall session of the General Assembly was already under way. France’s support for Boutros-Ghali never wavered until the final outcome. It was in a way to his honour to have defended, beyond the personality in question, friend of France and respectable, the institution of the Secretary General unjustly attacked. It could not be accepted that a permanent Member State imposed its conception of a multilateral system which it intended to dominate entirely because of its power.

The French Minister of Foreign Affairs had been informed quite beforehand of the possible chances of Kofi Annan through the channel of his advisor Salomé Zourabichvili, current President of Georgia who was then still a French diplomat, that I had approached before the Minister’s departure for New York. But in this very sensitive case, everything was suspended by the decision of President Chirac. In reality, very few people knew Kofi Annan in Paris and there was at the political level, decision-maker in the circumstances, a rather distant perception of the functioning of the UN system and its actors.

The course of events accelerated late but brutally and it had to be dealt with. The criterion of the Francophonie was important for France at the time, and questions were raised in Paris about the candidates’ language skills. It is true that Kofi Annan was an anglophone, not only because of his Ghanaian background but also because of his academic curriculum. But he had also served the Organization for many years, where French was also the working language of his public servants, and he had been posted to francophone positions, including Geneva. His wife, the niece of the famous Swedish diplomat Wallenberg, who had helped save the Jews of Hungary during the Second World War and who probably died in a Soviet jail, was also a francophone. In addition to his very appropriate practice of French, I was always surprised by Kofi Annan’s very detailed knowledge of our political life.

The fact that K. Annan had long held responsibilities in management functions far removed from the more visible activities of the Security Council and the General Assembly contributed to the candidate’s relative anonymity. The latter had also been classified in a somewhat expeditious manner in the category of UN officials open to the radical conception of the reform that prevailed in Washington. For my part, I felt that such a suspicion was not only hurtful but ignored the difficulty for an international civil servant worthy of the name to keep the balance equal between the permanent members, not to be obliged to do so or to oppose them in a frontal manner.

After a few weeks, I was on a mission to New York for a few days hoping to see K. Annan. When I arrived, I was immediately told by French colleagues that I had to avoid any contact with him. So I cancelled an appointment at the UN headquarter and met with K. Annan “in a private place” in the city. I was then struck by the relative isolation in which the candidate was then in when the deadline was approaching, It was a further proof that the choice of the Secretary-General of the United Nations was finally made between a few capitals and in each of them only concerned a very limited number of people.

At the Quai d’Orsay, information was not circulating about this and there was a kind of “blackout”. The paradox for me was that I did not have access to the information provided by the diplomatic network but that I received from time to time calls from K. Annan which did not exclusively relate to a private friendly relationship providing me with elements that my superiors did not dispose. Jean de Gliniasty recounted a posteriori, while he was Ambassador in Moscow – stressing that there was now a prescription -, that he carried out during this period a discreet mission to Nelson Mandela in South Africa as Special Envoy of the President of the Republic. The main purpose was of explaining the validity of our commitment to Boutros-Ghali.

Taken into the bush from Johannesburg by the South African Air Force, the Special Envoy was greeted by the President in jogging clothes and surrounded by his family. The exchange was a dialogue of the deaf. To France’s support for the outgoing Secretary-General, the President of South Africa systematically replied in favour of the Secretary-General of the OAU, Tanzanian Salim Ahmed Salim, who was not yet a declared candidate. It seems that Nelson Mandela retained a moral debt to the one who had supported him during those years of captivity. Anyway, we were in a deadlock.

Shortly after the emissary’s return to Paris, the French News Agency AFP issued a communiqué from the Presidency of the Republic stating that if Salim Salim was a candidate for the succession of Boutros-Ghali, France would veto him on the grounds that he was not French-speaking. I often questioned myself a posteriori about this announcement, while Boutros-Ghali had not yet given up arms and still benefited from our commitment; Were we so afraid that the possible candidacy of the Secretary-General of the OAU would destroy our isolated efforts? Did the Francophonie, as important as it was to our soft power, justify us to oppose in such a frontal way a great figure of the African continent of which we were supposed to be an ardent defender?

However, my reading is that President Chirac’s virtual veto – Salim Salim never ran – finally helped Kofi Annan at the most critical moment of the UN Security Council election procedure. Indeed, several African candidates, including of course K. Annan, declared themselves at the time when Boutros gave up. Of the other three, only one of Niger was unknown to me; Moktar Ould Abdallah, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mauritania who held senior positions in the UN Department of Development and Amara Essy, Minister of Foreign Affairs in office of Côte d’Ivoire who had been Ambassador of his country to the United Nations and was then to succeed Salim at the head of the OAU. I had established a friendship with Mr. Ould Abdallah, who was very close to France, and Amara Essy had been part of the Bureau of the Group of Francophone States in New York, for which I was the permanent Secretary. Both had great qualities but I considered that Kofi Annan had superior experience of the UN system and the personality that would ultimately win the most votes.

Very quickly, K. Annan took the lead in the Security Council votes until he won 14 votes, with only one Member State voting against him, which could not be determined because the vote was secret. Had the Council decided to proceed to a formal vote, the precedents being only indicative, the risk was great that the candidacy of K. Annan would have been destroyed, because one does not go back on a veto.

Events accelerated from the 14/1 vote. In Paris, I was surprised to be summoned to a high level of the Quai d’Orsay at a late hour (NB: it was almost 9 pm local time). My interlocutor referred to my “acquaintance” with Kofi Annan and questioned me about him. Since I did not understand the operational scope of this interview, I expressed my willingness to help if it proved useful. I received a rather vague answer indicating that a reflection was under way and that no decision had yet been made. I thought out of this interview without having been clearly told, whether I had a message to convey? I decided to contact Kofi Annan, as soon as I returned home, to tell him that I had been interrogated at a high level of the ministry, in a completely unexpected way, that I was not supposed to convey any message, but that my feeling was that “things were changing in Paris” and I did not rule out the possibility of early contact with him.

The next day, Kofi called me euphorically to tell me that an emissary «presenting himself on my behalf» (?!) had taken the Concorde the very morning to visit him and to assure him of the vote of France in favour of his candidacy and of his full cooperation in his future functions. The following day, December 17, 1996, the Security Council voted unanimously in favour of Kofi Annan, which was approved by the General Assembly in accordance with the procedure. Hervé de Charette, Minister of Foreign Affairs, explained on the same day from Dublin where a European Summit was held the reasons for this vote, that is to say a marked inflection with regard to the unfailing support given to the outgoing Secretary-General. Moreover, the outcome could not have been anything else: France was rightly judged to be close to the Africa that Kofi Annan fully embodied. How could she have opposed it and on what grounds? It was inconceivable that she could veto it. The virtual veto against Salim had been sufficient to demonstrate his determination and ability to direct her choices.

As far as I was concerned, my role ended there. I had spent a whole year focusing on this issue of the “appointment” of the Secretary-General (NB: this is the correct term, since it is primarily a choice of the Security Council endorsed by the General Assembly); I had not been charged with it professionally but it had taken place before my eyes and, judge and jury, I had not been able to abstain from it. From one day to the next, Kofi Annan, almost unknown outside the circles of the UN, became a global personality on the front page of the international press. Seeing the photograph of the new Secretary General on the front page of the New York Times, made me a strange impression was if I was suffering of split personality. Contact with Kofi Annan immediately became more difficult, intermediaries were needed. The Secretary-General-elect was immediately drawn into his crushing office. I had not been his lawyer and he had established himself because of his already successful career, his personality and also because of favourable circumstances. Nevertheless, I had the personal feeling that I had, in the interest of my country, always kept in touch and thus spared the future.

A few months later Kofi Annan made an official visit to France. The contact was immediately excellent with President Chirac and this was reflected in particular during the second Iraqi crisis in 1998 which was punctuated by many episodes including that of the «crisis of the Presidential Palaces» suspected of harbouring the preparation of weapons of mass destruction. Our Ambassador to the United Nations, Alain Dejammet, for whom I have the utmost respect, understood that my role in this affair was not limited to seeking a fine position at the UN Secretariat. A few years later, I had the honour of welcoming the Ambassador and Jean-Pierre Chevènement to Moscow and accompanying them to Evgeny Primakov, former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. It was a great moment.

I followed at a distance the two mandates of the Secretary-General whose record is known: the trauma of Rwanda, when he was not yet Secretary-General, but marked him forever as well as Bosnia; the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in March 1999, without the approval of the Security Council; the 2003 operation in Iraq, which he described as “illegal”; and the terrorist attack that cost the life of our mutual friend, the Argentine diplomat Sergio Viera de Mello, whom he had delegated to Baghdad that same year; but also the fierce and continuing battle against AIDS; the United Nations Agenda 2000 (“We People: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century”); the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 but the marginalization of the UN after September 11.

As often, for a public person, I was struck by the contrast between the perception of the opinion and the real personality of Kofi Annan. It was clear, however, that its internal strength was sometimes restrained by the constraints of office and dependence on the Security Council, particularly its permanent members. It was France’s honour to have always respected the Secretary-General of the United Nations, whatever he may be, and this was the deep meaning of the battle, sometimes considered as «rearguard» in favour of Boutros-Ghali. Kofi Annan understood perfectly well that it had never been directed against him in order to prevent him from assuming the supreme functions of the Organization.

A UN Secretary- General travels the world incessantly and Paris is very often a stopover on his journey. I thus had the opportunity to see Kofi Annan on several occasions and to accompany him at times in cultural “strolls”, such as the visit of the Egyptian halls of the Louvre that he so much appreciated. Not without humour, he loved the statue of the scribe. He made me the great honour of visiting me, in the company of his wife, herself an artist, at the Institut du Monde Arabe, where an exhibition was held devoted to painter  «Majorelle in Morocco».

I saw Kofi Annan for the last time on October 4, 2012 in London where he came to present his book «Interventions». He received me head-on and only one subject was on the agenda: Syria. He resigned the same year as UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy Ban Ki-Moon, due to the lack of support on the issue of permanent members. He was more worried than bitter and, very close to the orientations he outlined, I reported in detail to the Quai d’Orsay about this interview under the signature of my Ambassador, Bernard Emié.

I had the feeling that day, because of the clinical coldness of the discussion that was beyond us, that it was more important than friendship and perhaps even that friendship belonged to the past. Was it not a presumptuous to believe it again? For eight years as Secretary General, Kofi Annan had met the most prominent people of this world and so many anonymous human beings on all five continents. It was normal that this would have shaped him. He was still a well known  figure at the head of his Geneva-based Foundation. I had to live in reality and turn the page. Most important was that Kofi Annan was the noble incarnation of the international community and that we keep his message at the conclusion of his Memoirs: «  A United Nations that serves not only states but also peoples – and becomes the forum where governments are held accountable for their behavior towards their own citizens – will earn its place in the twenty-first century ».

With Kofi Annan and his wife at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, 2000

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