UNITED NATIONS - 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.
”U.N. Chief Ignites Firestorm by calling Iraq War 'Illegal',” is how the
'New York Times' described the controversy.
U.S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas said: ”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?”
Annan, who usually keeps his cool even under the most trying circumstances,
''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
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?” Powell added. ”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.''
© Copyright 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service