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ADVANCE praise for Kofi Annan’s memoirs, Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, has come from the likes of Bill Clinton and Lee Kuan Yew to Bono and Bill Gates. Even Amartya Sen calls it a “wonderful book [that] gives the readers a lucid and enjoyable understanding of the kind of reasoning and commitment that has made Annan such a force for good in the troubled world in which we live.”

Kofi Annan was the UN secretary general at a time when the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century saw the greatest challenges to peace and justice. No other UN secretary general gained the kind of significance, status or familiarity as Annan did. However, the invasion of Iraq proved to be very stressful, for even a skilled diplomat such as Annan.

Memoirs, however, are written in retrospect and Annan does his best to defend his own and the UN’s role in approaching the various challenges to peace — from Serbia to Rwanda and from Afghanistan to Iraq. However, his 10-year tenure will remain controversial, particularly in the cases of those conflicts, such as Darfur and Kosovo, where the UN acted rather late and let the suffering continue. In the case of Darfur, the debate focused on whether the killings could be termed a “genocide” or not. As Annan himself admits, the debate over terminology hardly helped those who were being ruthlessly killed. The humanitarian mission was delayed.

The Iraq war and the crippling sanctions preceding it will also remain a blot on the UN and Annan — even though the decision to invade Iraq was the American president’s, supported by the British prime minister, overriding all opposition from the UN Security Council. Annan’s account of the lead-up to the war has telling moments. He reveals George Bush’s dislike and distrust of him quite candidly (the US president’s remarks were caught by a microphone). His terming of the planned invasion as “illegal” in the face of opposition from the UN Security Council ensured that the US would block his quest for a third term. Annan narrates how, under persistent questioning by a BBC reporter who asked him point blank if the war was illegal, he had to admit it was. Earlier, he had been more cautious. As he says, “I had expressed this view, in less direct ways, on other occasions in the past. I had up to this point always sought to retain my ability to engage both sides of this deep global divide by avoiding an outright condemnation of the illegality of the war.”

Some of the most engrossing chapters, however, have less to do with international diplomacy. Annan’s account of growing up along the Gold Coast (Ghana), at a time when freedom struggles against colonialism across Africa were beginning to bear fruit, is an intensely personal account of an idealistic youth. It also serves as an excellent backdrop to the future career in diplomacy. As Annan writes, “As a young man, I was deeply influenced by the discussions going on at home with my father and his friends. At the same time, I was emotionally drawn to the passion and urgency of Nkrumah’s calls for ‘independence now’. Some of the statements that he was making — that we must stand on our own, that we must have our destiny in our own hands — resonated deeply with me.” The peaceful transition to power convinced the young Annan that transformation is possible without bloodshed.

With a career at the UN stretching 40 years, there are bound to be high and low points. Among the most frustrating for Annan was trying to negotiate peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Very early in his efforts he realised the impotency of the UN Secretary General’s office in this particular conflict as US presidents took on the role of negotiators, starting from the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979 to the Oslo Accords. The Israelis, in particular, seemed to trust the Americans, more than the UN, to look after its interests. As Annan notes, he and other world leaders were simply onlookers as president Bill Clinton hosted the Camp David summit with Israel’s prime minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. He seems particularly peeved at Israel’s rejection of UN efforts because as he notes, “It was the UN, after all, that had first given legitimacy (through General Assembly resolution 181, in 1947) to the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states in 1948.” Since then, Palestine is a cause that the UN has continued to betray.

Annan’s long stint at the UN, more so as secretary general for 10 years, brought him into close contact with world leaders. When he lets down the mask of diplomacy, there are frank comments on those who led nations into war — and peace. Interventions is full of interesting anecdotes about Annan’s interaction with well-known personalities. However, he is particularly critical of George Bush and American arrogance towards the world body. He recalls American opposition to the setting up of the International Criminal Court (ICC) — an opposition that came from president George Bush to the US representative at the UN, John Bolton, to an American judge who called the ICC “a kangaroo court.”

If peacemaking efforts were often difficult and sometimes futile, Annan obviously found a great deal of satisfaction in his success in setting up international bodies such as the ICC. He writes in great detail of the arduous journey from the Rome Statute of 1998 to the reality of the ICC, ending at last the culture of impunity for crimes against humanity. He criticises his fellow Africans who consider the court to be ‘racist’ as many dictators from the continent have been summoned by the ICC in recent years. Annan is also proud of making the UN Human Rights Council a reality, again a long journey of intense negotiation, as well as creating the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” under which recently there have been calls for intervention in Syria. Reading Annan’s biography, one is left with the impression that the UN’s role has been relegated to that of a provider of humanitarian assistance, rather than of a global peacemaker. Ironically, Kofi Annan and the UN were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in October 2001, just as another war was to begin with the invasion of Afghanistan.

The reviewer is the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

Interventions: A Life in War and Peace

(Memoirs)

By Kofi Annan with Nader Mousavizadeh

Allen Lane, UK

ISBN 1846142970

400pp.