Annan’s South Asian boys

Caught between Baghdad and Washington, Secretary-General Kofi Annan leans on subcontinental shoulders.

In recent years, the relationship between the United States and the United Nations has soured so much – the replacement of former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali at Washington's urging, disputes over Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the non-payment of more than one billion dollars in US arrears – that it sometimes seemed that only a deus ex machina could intervene to set things right. Or, so it seemed until present Secretary-General Kofi Annan found a novel approach to smooth the rough waters, especially in the current US campaign to contain any military threat from Iraq.

After clinching an agreement in direct negotiations with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in late February which would allow UN weapons inspections of even the most private Iraqi installations – and thereby avoiding a near-certain US attack – Annan was quickly faced with the dilemma of how to ensure that the White House would accept his deal.

Baghdad had backed down, allowing in principle the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) weapons monitors to perform their work even in Iraqi presidential palaces, but an implicit part of the deal was that neutral UN diplomats would ensure that such intangibles as Iraq's national dignity and sovereignty would not be violated.

Well, it seems, there is no one more neutral than the South Asians. In short order, Annan named Jayantha Dhanapala, Sri Lanka's former ambassador to the US and the newly-named Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament, to head a team of diplomats who would accompany UNSCOM on any sensitive inspections; and then Annan named India's former UN ambassador, Prakash Shah, as his special representative to Iraq.

Non-white tokens

As both Shah and Dhanapala travelled to Baghdad in the first week of March, it remained unclear exactly what they would do if, for instance, the embattled US President Bill Clinton decided to send the 35,000-odd US troops in the Persian Gulf to fight rather than, in effect, be perceived – as one prominent Republican Senator put it – as making Kofi Annan the US Secretary
of State.

Dhanapala, a US favourite from the days in 1995 when he chaired talks on the renewal of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is to defer to the authority of UNSCOM inspectors when going into Iraqi sites and serve mainly as a pipeline for complaints if Iraq feels the weapons teams are being too intrusive.

Shah's position is even murkier. He said his role is only "to provide improved lines of communication between the government of Iraq and UN headquarters." Considering that Iraq now has UN officials who oversee everything from its weapons programmes to oil sales and the distribution of humanitarian aid, additional communications lines seem redundant.

If the two diplomats' precise tasks are undetermined, their symbolic significance is anything but that. As one South Asian diplomat commented cheerfully but cynically after Shah's appointment was announced, "He's a qualified diplomat, he's well-versed on disarmament and he's not white." That last qualification could go a long way in easing Iraq's suspicions that the UN is doing the work of the United States (and to a lesser extent, of Britain) in laying the groundwork for a new US attack.

Annan clearly had already irked Washington by forestalling an attack with his eleventh-hour diplomacy. Even before the secretary-general left for Baghdad, US Ambassador Bill Richardson loudly doubted that he could accomplish anything by going, and gritted his teeth when discussing any diplomatic alternative to US air strikes. Washington would not be pleased by the appointment of Shah to act as an intermediary if future tiffs between Iraq and the US threaten to escalate into military conflict. It was Shah, after all, who led India's unsuccessful effort in 1996 to garner Third World votes in the General Assembly against the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Shah's appointment as someone authorised to handle disarmament affairs also puts an envoy in Baghdad who has in recent years challenged several US-encouraged efforts to bring nuclear disarmament to South Asia. Perhaps more significantly, the CTBT tussle had pitted Shah against the treaty's most prominent backer at the UN, Australian Ambassador Richard Butler – who, as the blustering, truculent executive chairman of UNSCOM, has been loudly (if somewhat unfairly) castigated by Baghdad as Washington's man.

UN vs US

The appointment of the two South Asian envoys is also a sign of a different, related trend: the clear distaste within the UN for the way Washington has tried to bully the world body in recent years, from dumping Boutros Boutros-Ghali when he became a political liability for Clinton before the 1996 US elections (in which Republican candidate Bob Dole repeatedly earned cheers for mocking the Egyptian diplomat's name) to its most criticised failing, the nonpayment of dues for the UNs running – which now amount to some USD 1.3 billion in regular and peacekeeping costs. At the same time, the US Congress is pushing for a reduction in the UN assessment of dues, by which Washington is currently required to foot the bill for a quarter of the roughly billion-dollar UN budget every year; Clinton is seeking a lowering of the assessment to a little over 20 percent.

The problem is that Washington is finding it hard to sell the idea that its UN dues are too high when countries from Canada to Fiji have been paying up their (admittedly lower) shares faithfully. The annual cost of keeping current US dues, Pakistani Ambassador to the UN Ahmad Kamal contends, amounts to the price of one token on the New York City subway per US citizen. In contrast, he adds, for every dollar in American dues that goes into the UN, the US takes out between five and seven dollars in salaries for American personnel at the UN, procurement contracts for US companies – and, not least, the money the UN headquarters staff spends in New York City. For Washington, says Ambassador Kamal, "the UN is a goose that lays golden eggs."

The American public seems to agree. Several polls show that more than 60 percent of US respondents approve of the UN's work, while a clear majority favoured a diplomatic solution in Iraq to a military strike. But Congress is a separate creature entirely, with some Republicans (such as Representative Helen Chenoweth of Idaho) backed by the sort of angry Americans who believe the UN sends black helicopters prowling over their mainland and plans to take over public parks. (One recent episode of the popular conspiracy-minded TV show, The X Files, featured a villain who spoke in front of a UN logo, saying, she "answers only to the Secretary General".)

The White House's willingness to retreat in the face of such paranoid parochialism has been a particular bone of contention with UN officials, who frequently wonder why they are treated as members of a sinister government run by aliens – particularly when, as a recent study sponsored by the Ford Foundation revealed, the vast majority of upper-level staff appointments continue to go to North Americans and Europeans.

Taming Washington

Ironically, with the Iraq stand-off, the UN has reversed the normal pattern of US-dictated solutions and put in place a negotiated settlement much more even-handed than what the Clinton administration wanted – thanks in no small part to someone whose very job at the UN owes a lot to Washington's use of its clout. Kofi Annan would not be Secretary-General today if the then US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright (now the Secretary of State) had not decided that the Ghanaian career UN staffer would be the right man to replace the increasingly independent Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the end of 1996.

Although Boutros-Ghali won the approval of most UN member states – including 14 of the 15 nations on the Security Council – it was the sole opposition of the United States which doomed him. African countries, unwilling to lose the top spot at the UN, eventually swung their support behind Washington's preference for Annan. Mild-mannered, educated at Minnesota's Macalester College and known for his administrative expertise, Annan seemed the ideal choice to implement the stringent cutbacks that the White House wanted the UN to undergo before it could persuade Congress to repay the arrears. Annan followed through on the reforms – although not as radically as Clinton or Congress may have wished – but has proved during 15 months in office to be anything but a pushover.

Shortly after taking office, the Ghanaian Secretary General said that his post "also has a political and diplomatic role, and above all a moral voice which should be heard periodically when necessary." In the first few months, when he weighed in against the massacres in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Algeria, Annan raised that voice without drawing objections from Washington. But when Iraq prompted a worsening standoff with UNSCOM last November and Clinton ordered the intensified deployment of US troops in the region, Annan also started speaking out more vocally for a negotiated settlement – something Albright and Richardson only grudgingly accepted after erstwhile allies from Russia and France to Egypt and Saudi Arabia opposed the military effort.

More importantly, in recent weeks, while Clinton insists that Washington now has the right to strike Iraq unilaterally if the current arms agreement is not obeyed, Annan has cautioned that "if it became necessary to use force, some sort of consultation with [Security] Council members will be required." The message to the US has been clear: Follow UN procedures if you intend to use UN rulings as a fig leaf for action. That, in turn, is a different message from the one Washington heard when US troops secured UN authorisation for the 1991 Gulf War, or when it cited UN dictates to justify its no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq.

Whether the United Nations is becoming more assertive is one thing: it remains strapped for cash, and may well have to meet a variety of Congress-imposed benchmarks before it receives the money it is owed. But for now, the recent pattern of a United Nations dominated by the world's "indispensable nation", as Albright so arrogantly and frequently puts it, has been slightly altered – as seen by the prominence of two South Asian diplomats in the world's most heated hot spot.

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