"The Security Council took no responsibility for the situation in Rwanda and the growing number of lives lost, and its key members flatly denied the notion that a genocide was taking place." That is how Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general, summed up the attitude of the UN Security Council — the world's most important security body — as over 200,000 people were killed in Rwanda by April 1994 in a violent, brutal and bitter tribal war.
This observation by Annan is one of a number that damn the behaviour of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council who declined to take action, because of their own national interests, even as hundreds of thousands of people were killed in civil wars within countries.
Annan recounts these events in his book, Interventions: A Life in Peace and War, published by the Penguin Press. It is a surprisingly frank account by a man who was often criticised for taking the side of the Americans in international conflicts. He served as UN secretary-general from 1997 to 2006 at a time that civil war and genocide raged not only in Rwanda where eventually over 800,000 were murdered, but Bosnia, Kosovo, the Congo, Iraq, Darfur, Sierra Leone and East Timor.
His narration of the Security Council's attitude is most chilling in relation to its lack of unanimity to intervene in states where a line had been crossed in the brutalisation of people, and governments had lost any legitimate right to continue to govern.
Often national interest positions of the veto-empowered nations, particularly the US and Russia, delayed action until worldwide television coverage of atrocities forced them to do something.
But even when the Security Council did agree to take action, Annan chronicles how difficult it was to get them to commit troops for peacekeeping exercises, and how much more difficult operations become because the governments that commit the troops want to maintain control over them rather than relinquish authority to a UN-appointed commander.
This is a situation which, while improved under Annan's watch as secretary-general, still remains problematic in relation to the UN actually intervening in states to protect human life. As he put it: "When people are in danger, everyone has a duty to speak out. No one has a right to pass by on the other side".
Governments did "pass by on the other side". They did so for years on the argument over whether large-scale killings could legally be defined as "genocide". As Annan put it, there was a mistaken assumption that this question was effectively synonymous with "Should the world take action?".
He argued with Jack Straw, then foreign secretary of Britain, over Darfur in 2004, that "whatever we call it, there are clearly gross and systematic violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law happening in Darfur and the situation is the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world".
As it turned out, it was almost four years of mass rape, mutilation, slaughter and the deaths of hundreds of thousands from exposure, disease and malnutrition as well as the displacement of millions before the Security Council acted in 2007, and even then, the "peacekeeping" mission that it deployed could not protect the people of Darfur from gross violations of human rights.
Annan was a proponent of the "Responsibility to Protect" as a standard by which governments should be held to account. As he says: "We have told the dictators that sovereignty is no longer a shield behind which gross violations of human rights can be committed. You are responsible and you are accountable".
In a persuasive passage in his book, Annan argues: "We needed to convince the broader global community that sovereignty had to be understood as contingent and conditional on states taking responsibility for the security of their own people's human rights and for this to be taken as seriously as the states' expectation of non-interference in their internal affairs."
This notion is still being resisted in particular by some developing countries that continue to assert that the non-interference in their internal affairs is sacred. Of course, when their states are rent asunder, their economies ruined and many of their young, able-bodied people are dead or maimed, it is the rest of the world that has to pay the costs of rebuilding.
These are two issues that remain relevant in the working of the UN and in particular the Security Council: the "Responsibility to Protect" and the role of UN forces once they are deployed in a country. In the latter case, if the mandate and strength of the forces are not credible in that they are given authority and resources to enforce an end to war, they will be standing by while atrocities continue.
In the former case, the issue of "Responsibility to Protect" has to be embraced by states the world over, or gross human rights violations will continue under the shield of sovereignty.
On these matters, Kofi Annan's memoir is a very important contribution to the welfare of all mankind. It is a text that should be widely read and not only by practitioners or students of international affairs.
His book deals with many other complex issues that still bedevil the world and, while we have all come to live with them, are serious threats to international peace. Among these are the Middle East, and in particular Israel and Palestine.
The invasion of Iraq by the US and UK on the fig leaf of Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction is also referenced in the book, although not in sufficient detail. However, Annan does make a solid observation: "Despite the singular contribution of the United States to the UN's founding and its mission in the decades that followed, after Iraq, America was too often unwilling to listen, and the world unable to speak its true mind".
Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant and former Caribbean diplomat
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