Subject: IHT: Annan Showed What One Leader Can Achieve

International Herald Tribune Thursday, August 31, 2000


Annan Showed What One Leader Can Achieve

By Astri Suhrke International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON - When the East Timor crisis occurred a year ago, Kofi Annan had already apologized twice for the United Nations' failure to prevent horrendous massacres. The genocide in Rwanda and the destruction of Srebrenica had occurred on his shift as head of UN peacekeeping operations. Mr. Annan, now secretary-general, evidently wanted to prevent a recurrence.

New material has come to light which shows that he immersed himself in the international diplomacy that preceded the referendum on East Timor's status on Aug. 30 last year. And when the overwhelming ''yes'' vote provoked bloody reprisals from the Indonesian-support militias, he used the prestige of his office to mobilize the Security Council and public opinion to try to end the bloodshed.

It was a dramatic change from the role Mr. Annan had played in the Rwanda and Srebrenica crises, when he followed the institutional tendency for the Secretariat to follow rather than lead the Security Council, and exercise an ''anticipatory veto'' by not calling for actions that the council would be unlikely to accept.

The cautious stance of Boutros Boutros Ghali in the Rwanda crisis was striking. In effect, he led the stampede for the United Nations to withdraw in the face of the genocide in April 1994. The Security Council eagerly embraced the withdrawal option that he presented. Two weeks later he realized the enormity of his mistake and placed the prestige of his office behind an effort to reverse course and reintroduce a UN military force in Rwanda.

In the East Timor case, by contrast, the secretary-general publicly called for a strong stance while the Security Council dithered or demurred.

On Sept. 3, when Dili started to burn, Mr. Annan sought to bind the United Nations and its member states by declaring that the UN would ''not fail'' in guiding the territory to independence. As the flames leaped higher, he said the killings possibly constituted crimes against humanity, and he told the Indonesians to accept an international intervention.

''We cannot stand by and allow the people of East Timor to be killed,'' he said on Sept. 8, although it was clear that the Security Council would not authorize a UN force without Indonesian consent.

Intervention came too late. By the time Indonesia agreed to an Australian-led force to restore order, more than half of East Timorese had been forcibly displaced, perhaps a thousand had been killed (out of a population of some 800 000) and the scorched earth tactic of militias and departing Indonesian troops had left little standing.

But the silver lining was that this time someone on the 38th floor of UN headquarters was working desperately to mitigate the disaster. The telephone log of the secretary-general from Aug. 24 to Sept. 16 shows how he personally conducted the crisis diplomacy.

Before the referendum, he was repeatedly on the line to Jakarta to President B.J. Habibie and Foreign Minister Ali Alatas urging them to hon-or an agreement to provide security during the referendum.Once it was clear that the government was unwilling or unable to do so, he started calling ambassadors in the ''contact group'' for East Timor and key members of the Security Council.

On Sept. 5 and 6 he was trying to get the Security Council to ratchet up the pressure by sending a mission to Indonesia. During those two days he was on the phone to President Bill Clinton, the Australian prime minister (five times), the president of Portugal (twice), the president of Mozambique, the prime minister of New Zealand, the foreign minister of the Philippines (twice), Mr. Habibie (four times), U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (repeatedly) and the UN ambassadors of Portugal (six times), Indonesia and South Africa. He also frequently called the Timorese independence leader, Xanana Gusmão, in his Indonesian jail cell.

Mr. Boutros Ghali had never involved himself closely in the Rwanda conflict. During the first critical week he was traveling in Europe and the Soviet Union, leaving crisis management to lower levels at headquarters.

Why did Mr. Annan interpret the secretary-general's role rather aggressively in the East Timor crisis? First, the United Nations had been given an institutional responsibility for East Timor since 1982, and had brokered the May 1999 agreement permitting a ''popular consultation.'' East Timor was a special ward of the United Nations. Failure to act wouldbe especially ignominious.

Second, there were the painful memories of Rwanda and Srebrenica - painful in particular for the former undersecretary-general for peacekeeping.

Conclusion: One person in the right place can make a difference, even in the cumbersome UN system. And good lessons can be learned from past tragedies, both by individuals and by institutions.

The writer, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington and at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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