Annan reveals little of his personality

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 10:26am

Interventions: A Life in War and Peace

by Kofi Annan


Charley Lanyon

Interventions: A Life in War and Peace is at turns enlightening and wilfully obscure. Anyone hoping for a traditional autobiography will be disappointed. There is barely any mention here of Kofi Annan's life outside of his work. Aside from a brief discussion of his father and his upbringing in Ghana, we learn almost nothing of his schooling, formative years, career history or personal life. He mentions his wife, but not who she is nor how she influences him. No mention is made of his first wife or children at all.

In place of personal detail, the former secretary-general dedicates his time to what he feels are his most significant contributions to policy and diplomacy during his tenure at the United Nations. The book is organised around a series of significant events including the lessons learned from the UN's failings in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia, the reframing of the issues of intervention, and the use of force to achieve peace in East Timor and Kosovo, his efforts in poverty alleviation and HIV/Aids treatment and prevention, the UN in a post-9/11 world and the disastrous US invasion of Iraq.

Annan does not shy away from sharing the private comments of world leaders and his assessment of some, especially in the United States, can be damning. It is these fly-on-the-wall moments that are the most compelling.

Disappointingly, these moments are relatively few and far between. Annan favours a more shallow approach to world events, summarising his experiences and pausing only to touch upon his successes and noble intentions. There is undoubtedly a lot of undeserved blame laid at the feet of the UN and the secretary-general in particular and a memoir is one of the few comprehensive options for score settling and setting the record straight. But Annan's unwillingness to face personal failings head on, coupled with the ease with which he points the finger elsewhere, lends the book a tone that is at best a bit desperate and at worse disingenuous.

Interventions shines in the chapters dedicated to poverty alleviation and the fight against HIV/Aids; especially in the sections dealing with the development of the Millennium Development Goals and the Global Fund. These are real achievements that are often unfairly maligned and Annan makes a compelling case for them, exploring both the unique diplomatic wranglings of their implementation and their lasting effect on the lives of those most at risk.

The overall purpose of
Interventions seems to be to make a case for the role of the United Nations in the modern world and specifically to put forth what Annan clearly feels are his most valuable contributions to its evolution, namely that the world body should serve and protect the interests of the people over those of nation states, and that it is the responsibility of every country to intervene, with force if necessary, in cases of crimes against humanity, that sovereignty is not a shield behind which tyrants can hide.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of personal information and an unwillingness to deal with the darker aspects of his time as secretary-general - the food for oil scandal is mentioned but never explained - the overall work lacks personality. We are left with no doubt that Annan is a capable and principled man, and that he deserves much credit for his significant and varied achievements in the name of peace and the world's most disadvantaged, but we end up with very little idea of who he is.




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