Former UN human rights lawyer Kenneth Cain says the secretary-general could finally redeem himself by saving lives - after years of lethal passivity
Like its cousin, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Rwanda's stunning new genocide museum, perched on a quiet hillside overlooking Kigali, is at its most arresting when it honours the lost children. One installation invites us to consider David, a cute, shy boy, with big round black eyes: David's favourite sport was soccer; he enjoyed making people laugh; his dream was to be a doctor; he was tortured to death; his last words were: 'The UN will come to get us.'
Next to David's biography is Ariane's, four, stabbed in the eyes and head; Fillette, also four, smashed against a wall; Yves and Yvonne, three and five, hacked to death at their grandmother's house; Aurone, two, burnt alive in a chapel; and 12-year-old Mami, whose last words were: 'Mum, where can I run to?'
The children's installation is introduced by the words: 'They should still be with us.' A nearby display asks whether they could be. It honours the actions of ordinary people of courage. People like Yahaya, a 60-year-old Muslim who saved Beatha, who narrates her story: 'The killer was chasing me down an alley. I was going to die any second. I banged on the door of the yard. It opened almost immediately. He [Yahaya] took me by the hand and stood in his doorway and told the killer to leave. He said the Koran says if you save one life it is like saving the whole world. He did not know it is a Jewish text as well.' Next to these tributes is nother installation - a reproduction of the infamous fax by the UN Force Commander, General Romeo Dallaire, imploring the then head of UN peacekeeping, Kofi Annan, for authority to defend Rwandan civilians - many of whom had taken refuge in UN compounds under implicit and sometimes explicit promises of protection.
Here, too, is Annan's faxed response - ordering Dallaire to defend only the UN's image of impartiality, forbidding him to protect desperate civilians waiting to die. Next, it details the withdrawal of UN troops, even while blood flowed and the assassins reigned, leaving 800,000 Rwandans to their fate.
The museum's silent juxtaposition of personal courage versus Annan's passive capitulation to evil is an effective reminder of what is at stake in the debate over Annan's future: when the UN fails, innocent people die. Under Annan, the UN has failed and people have died.
His own legions have raped and pillaged. In two present scandals, over the oil-for-food programme in Iraq, and sex-for-food in Congo, Annan was personally aware of malfeasance among his staff, but again responded with passivity.
Having worked as a UN human rights observer in Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and Liberia, there are two savage paradoxes for me here. The first is that, while the media and conservative politicians and pundits have suddenly discovered that the UN has been catastrophically incompetent, this is very old news to anyone with the mud (or blood) of a UN peacekeeping mission on his boots.
One very personal example: when I worked in Liberia in the mid-Nineties a new chief administrative officer was dispatched to Monrovia by the UN to replace the previous CAO, who was removed (then reassigned elsewhere) for taking a 15 per cent kickback on UN procurement contracts. In the name of cleaning up the old corruption, the new CAO tapped our phones, paid locals to spy for him and threatened to send home anyone who opposed him, all to facilitate his own quest for a 15 per cent kickback on everything we purchased.
The worst part was watching him try to coerce as many of his young 'local staff' to sleep with him as possible. A UN salary is enough money to support an entire extended family in a country such as Liberia, so these vulnerable women were in a tortuously compromised position by their boss's unwanted advances.
I was the human rights lawyer and these girls would come to my office in tears asking for help. I wrote memo after memo of complaint to my chain of command, but no one did anything. I even confronted the CAO personally. To no effect. When I visited the UN human resources office in New York to complain personally, they laughed at my naive outrage: 'It happens all the time in the field,' they said. 'There's nothing we can do.'
In the meantime, a quarter of a million Liberians died, and warring factions committed war crimes. And the UN did - nothing. Just as it was simultaneously doing nothing, more infamously, in Rwanda and Bosnia.
Before I met him in Liberia, that CAO, Krishna Gowandan, had been knocking around West Africa for years in various UN jobs, always mired in corruption, never disciplined, always promoted and reassigned - a pattern all too familiar at the UN - during which time the head of personnel was Kofi Annan. (Gowandan was eventually indicted by US federal prosecutors in New York for $1.5 million worth of fraudulent kickbacks on UN construction jobs. He has since died.)
What kind of leadership would tolerate this conduct 10 years ago? The answer is: precisely the same leadership that, 10 years later, permitted the oil-for-food scandal and the sex-for-food scandal. Why did it take everyone 10 years to figure this out?
The second searing irony for me is that the American neoconservative right has occupied the moral high ground in critique of Annan, outflanking the left, which sits on indefensible territory in his support. But if prevention of genocide and protection of the vulnerable are not core priorities on the left, then what is? If anyone's values have been betrayed, it is those of us on the left who believe most deeply in the organisation's ideals. I am mystified by the reluctance of the left both in the US and the UK (the Guardian 's coverage, for example) to criticise Annan's leadership. The bodies burn today in Darfur - and the women are raped - amid the sound of silence from Annan. How many genocides, the prevention of which is the UN's very raison d'être, will we endure before the left is moved to criticise Annan? Shouldn't we be hearing the left screaming bloody murder about the UN's failure to protect vulnerable Africans? Has it lost its compass so badly that it purports to excuse the rape of Congolese women by UN peacekeepers under Annan's watch? Is stealing money intended for widows and orphans in Iraq merely a forgivable bureaucratic snafu?
I am co-author of a book critical of Annan's peacekeeping legacy, Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone . My co-author, Dr Andrew Thomson, penned a line that drove the UN leadership to fire him. Lamenting UN negligence in failing Bosnian Muslims whom it had promised to protect in its 'safe area' of Srebrenica - where 8,000 men were slaughtered - Thomson wrote: 'If blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers show up in your town or village and offer to protect you, run. Or else get weapons. Your lives are worth so much less than theirs.'
Our book is often criticised by fellow travellers on the left because we hold Annan and the UN accountable. As head of peacekeeping then, and as secretary-general now, Annan's power to effect any change on the ground, our critics remind us, is constrained by the interests of the Security Council (the US and France didn't want to intervene in Rwanda, the French again in Bosnia, and China and Russia now in Darfur). Therefore it's unrealistic to argue that Annan should risk his job by exhorting his Security Council bosses to do the right thing in the face of genocide.
Our response? Annan asks - no, orders - unarmed civilians to risk their lives every day as election observers, human rights monitors, drivers and secretaries in the most dangerous conditions all over the world. They do it, heroically, every day. And, in the service of peace, some pay with their lives; others with their sanity. How can he then not ask of himself the courage to risk his job in the cause of preventing genocide? At the very least, he could go down trying to save lives, as opposed to going down trying to explain why he didn't.
Annan is not personally corrupt or incompetent. But the UN cannot have failed more catastrophically when the stakes have been highest.
If he does not lose his job for that, then for what? And if not now, when?
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005