UNITED NATIONS. ANNAN HOMECOMING

 

1 FEBRUARY 2013

ANNAN HOMECOMING

You criticize your former colleague so strongly, but during a crunch, you find yourself by his side.

When Kofi Annan returned to U.N. New York Headquarters on 14 January to present his new book Interventions in Conference Room 4, the interim building -- known as North Lawn -- was crowded. Old and new, knowledgeable and curious, those who actually bought the book were eager to have him sign it; the rest wanted to hear what he had to say or merely to watch how he's doing.

The occasion was to sign Mr. Annan's book. Indeed, there were many who bought it and waited. A questioner merely wondered whether he would actually sign. Another NGO, a "Queen Mother" from Harlem with her familiar turban and elaborate accent, asked what "we" could do in Washington, D.C., to support his efforts, whatever or wherever they were. In a glimpse of his former sense of humour, the author deferred to her judgment, "as Queen Mothers are usually more influential than us."

But most questions were about his unfinished mission in Syria. Moderated by Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, a full house audience in Conference Room 4 of the North Lawn seemed more curious about an outcome for the conflict now spreading beyond the Syrian borders and involving fighters from other countries.

While patiently and clearly explaining varied aspects of his own mission, Mr. Annan clearly supported the mission of Lakhdar Brahimi. He felt he did not have real support, despite generous rhetoric, from key members of the Security Council. More to the point, several governments in the region that had promised him full support were in fact undercutting it financially, politically, or logistically pushing for extended fighting. Despite his calm demeanor, he seemed obviously piqued when questioned whether peace efforts by him and Brahimi extended the stalemate rather than helped find a settlement. He had taken over about a year after the conflict started. Those pushing for a military victory had one whole year with no outcome. Mr. Annan and Mr. Brahimi were seeking to help the Syrian people, not the regime nor the gunfighters. They were thinking first and foremost of the suffering and loss of life and livelihood amongst the Syrians. How could anyone dare claim that attempts to find a peaceful outcome were delaying a settlement of the conflict? Was any side able to settle? Was any force capable of decisive military victory? How could anyone within a United Nations framework even hint that fighting is more pertinent to a settlement than peacemaking?

The crisis in Mali was brought up in a question by Evelyn Leopold, former Reuters correspondent who has been reporting from the U.N., by her own tongue-in-cheek comment, "for the last hundred years." A straightforward response was that the region had been used for drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and similar contraband. A "failed state" there would be a further disaster, particularly when you take the example of Somalia and Afghanistan.

As Deputy Secretary General Eliasson pointed out in conclusion, Mr. Annan's presentation showed that he was still following closely the latest developments in the region. The reception he received -- and the line that formed by those waiting for his signature -- reflected a homecoming welcome that we hope will persuade him that the three decades he had devoted working for the United Nations were not in vain. U.N. Headquarters remains his home and those entering its gates to promote its objectives may disagree with him on specific issues, but they share the same commitment.

We all change. So did, of course, long-time international civil servant and two-term Secretary General Kofi Annan. Some changes we felt may have appealed to some but may have antagonized others. One positive change we noticed in his latest appearance is: he seemed more decisive.

(Photo by Marlene Tremblay)