with Kofi Annan on East Timor
The Sydney Morning Herald Monday, February 7, 2000
On top of the world?
Mark Riley in New York talks to UN chief Kofi Annan, who is preparing to visit Australia for the first time.
Most world leaders roar into a room. Kofi Annan enters with a hush.
The quiet man of international diplomacy adjusts the cuffs of his well-tailored suit as he slips through the doorway of his 34th floor New York office and turns to guide the door silently closed.
There are people at the United Nations' headquarters whose job it is to attend to such menial tasks as opening and shutting doors for the Secretary-General. But he likes to do things for himself.
It is a metaphor for his existence. Kofi Annan - opening doors.
He stands for a moment, as if frozen in thought, clearing his head of the discussion he has just had in preparation for the one he is about to enter.
The job of a Secretary-General is an eternal, revolving cycle from one meeting, one conversation, one round of talks to the next. It is a never-ending assignment: "The world on the brink" - discuss.
Annan is about to embark on two-week visit to the Asia-Pacific that will take him to Australia for the first time, and has agreed to an interview with the Herald and the ABC.
When he speaks, the listener instinctively leans forward, as much to concentrate on the intent of his message as to counteract its soft delivery. Today, that message begins with thanks and praise.
"I want to thank the Government and the people of Australia for the very strong support they gave to the UN and the international community when we needed them to help calm the situation in East Timor," he says.
"I think their leadership and generosity is something that I will always value. Without that leadership, I don't think we would have been able to bring the situation on the ground under control.
"And I was also quite touched by the generosity of the Australian people. I know that a special tax has been levied to pay for the operations and this has been accepted willingly and freely by the people. It is quite remarkable and I think [my visit] would give me the opportunity to thank the Government and the people ..."
After three years as Secretary-General, the 61-year-old Ghanaian has managed to retain an aura of ambient calm and control, while the world he surveys does its best to defy an uncommon outbreak of prosperity and peace with imposed poverty and pain.
For much of his stewardship, he has weathered harsh criticism of the UN's inability to prevent the human rights tragedies of Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Congo and East Timor, among others.
It now appears clear the debate over whether the UN could have prevented the widespread violence in East Timor will never be resolved. That it "should" have done more is a moral and political given. But whether it "could" is a much tougher proposition.
It is the ponderous and complex structure of the UN, with its need for unanimity among a farrago of feuding countries and regional alliances, rather than any perceived inaction by Annan, that prevents the organisation from moving with any haste.
Yet, most observers agree that the UN is an institution as essential as it is imperfect. It might not be much, but it is all the world has got.
Against this background, Mr Annan concedes that the UN would not have been able to move quickly enough to restore order in East Timor, and that it was only Australia's preparedness to send in its troops that prevented further bloodshed.
"This underscores something that I have been saying all along, that rapidity of deployment in these operations is crucial," he says. "If you are able to move quickly you may be able to nip the problem in the bud or contain it.
"If Australia had not been nearby and offered to lead and had not shown the leadership that Prime Minister Howard and the people of Australia did, we probably would have got to East Timor a couple of months later and it would then probably have been too late to pick up the pieces."
It was the UN that sponsored the talks between Indonesia and Portugal leading to the eventual independence ballot last August, and the UN that agreed to allow Indonesian troops and Indonesian police to control security during and after the vote.
Now, it is Annan admitting that the UN was simply unable to react with any haste to the predictable human rights catastrophe that ensued. East Timor did dissolve into pieces but Australia's actions were enough to limit their number.
It is perhaps the clearest indication of Annan's character that no other Secretary-General would have been prepared to admit the UN's failings with anything like the same candour.
His frankness has unsettled many within his ponderous bureaucracy, who believe there are enough people with a readiness to criticise the UN without the organisation's chief chiming in. Yet, Annan's critical commentary is mostly contained to questions of the past. When it comes to problems about the UN's present actions, his attitude changes to one of defence.
The case of the UN's stand on the question of an international war crimes tribunal in East Timor, or a UN-sponsored truth and reconciliation commission, is an apposite case in point.
A report by a panel of UN human rights investigators strongly recommended last week that an international tribunal be established, on the basis of consistent and credible evidence that the wave of terror that engulfed the territory was actively supported by Indonesian military leaders.
The Costa Rican MP who headed the inquiry, Sonia Picado, went further and said she had no faith in the ability of the Indonesian legal system to deliver justice to the East Timorese.Yet, Annan did not endorse the panel's recommendations. Instead, he now says Indonesia should first be given the opportunity to prosecute those responsible itself.
"The main thing is to put people on trial and make them accountable," he says."Normally, we need to see how they proceed. If the Government has the capacity and the willingness to do it and is doing it, you don't want to create another tribunal."
If the Indonesian response is not viewed as satisfactory by the international community, the Security Council can visit the question of whether to sanction its own inquiry, Annan says.
The problem is that the make-up of the Security Council dictates against the chances of such a tribunal being supported. Russia and China, as permanent members of the council, hold veto rights over such issues and one or both is generally expected to block a UN tribunal. Neither country wants to set a human rights precedent that could later come back to haunt it over its own activities in Chechnya or Tibet.
Annan does not accept the inevitability of veto problems when put to him in the interview. His answer, though, is carried in a tone of diplomatic pragmatism rather than one of real optimism.
He begins with the Secretary-General's pat response about matters pending in the council: "I would not want to prejudge what the Security Council would do or would not do."
Then he adds: "The Security Council has set up two tribunals in the last decade and has taken action that in some situations we would not have expected."
Indeed, it has. But a casual examination of the circumstances in which those two tribunals were established only adds weight to the growing belief that the council will not act against Indonesia.
The tribunals were set up after the UN peacekeeping disasters in Rwanda and Bosnia, in which the UN's famed blue-helmet soldiers left thousands of Rwandans and hundreds in Srebenica to certain slaughter because the council had not given them the powers to return fire.
The UN had no choice but to sanction the tribunals to make amends for the wholesale massacre of people it had deserted in times of abject crisis.
The case in East Timor, thanks to Australia's leadership in the multinational military force, is an entirely different case politically. It is seen as a peacekeeping success, even though the soldiers who did the hard work were not technically UN peacekeepers but a "coalition of the willing" acting on a Security Council mandate. Also, the UN is concerned with ensuring that a practical and political peace surrounds East Timor, bringing harmony to relations between the new leadership and Indonesia as well as between Indonesia and Australia - a harmony that could only be threatened if it were to force an international tribunal against Jakarta's will.
Such a move would almost certainly further destabilise the nascent leadership of the Indonesian President, Abdurrahman Wahid, and encourage the persistent rumours of an impending military insurrection.
Annan will confront these issues as he embarks on his South-East Asian tour, which will take him to Jakarta, Dili and West Timor before arriving for a five-day visit in Australia on Friday week.
The trip will give him an important opportunity to view the devastation and destruction that was wrought on the East Timorese by the Indonesian military-backed militia.
He has seen the reports from his observers, heard the accounts of his most senior advisers and of a special Security Council mission. But the true cost of freedom is never so affecting as it is when witnessed first-hand. Invariably, that cost is exacted in blood. And, in East Timor, the bloodstains are fresh and obvious to all.
The door to that scene is one the quiet man of international diplomacy would dearly like to close.
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