Last week, former UN Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi Annan resigned as special UN-Arab League Envoy to Syria. The news agency Reuters described him during his Geneva news conference as follows: "A visibly shaken Kofi Annan admitted defeat in his attempts to bring peace to Syria...His voice cracking with emotion as he announced his resignation..."
Should we blame one individual for his failure to stop the bloodshed? When Annan accepted the job 17 months ago, several observers considered it Mission Impossible since the UN Security Council was split over what to do...
China and Russia, still smarting from the regime change in Libya when they had thought Security Council Resolution 1973 was meant only to protect civilians, have voted three times against further sanctions for the Syrian government. During the press conference, Annan said; "You have to understand, as an Envoy, I can't want peace more than the protagonists, more than the Security Council or the international community, for that matter." Without strong support from the Security Council, Annan argued, there was not much he could do. Indeed, it was revealed last week that the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were helping the opposition, a move not conducive to a diplomatic settlement.
Several years ago an impressive book came out with the title: "Secretary or General?: The UN Secretary-General in World Politics." It argued that the force of the Secretary-General depended upon the political will of the major countries as well as his personality. Kofi Annan accepted the position as Envoy as a former Secretary-General, meaning his ability to convince was further reduced. Moral authority is not the same as legal authority, political position or military force, as the Pope well knows.
There is no point in arguing whether or not Mr. Annan should have accepted the assignment. He must have honestly believed that he could have made a difference, as he did in Kenya in 2007. What we can say, however, is that his real failure was not that he couldn't convince the Syrian factions to stop fighting, but that he couldn't convince the Security Council to have a consensus position.
A secretary takes orders, a General gives orders that he expects to be obeyed. Secretary or General? The real failure of the mission was not being able to reach a common position within the Security Council. That seems to be Mission Impossible for Ban Ki-Moon as well as Kofi Annan. And that failure is even more serious than the current Syrian crisis.
August 6, 2012