Annan on the ramparts

May 21, 1998|By Daniel Berger

KOFI Annan had expected Rwanda to be tough. In the event of his visit, "it was moving, almost harrowing."

He had had to take the rap, serve the scapegoat function of U.N. secretary-general, facing the politicians and people of that wounded country.

Just before his recent whirlwind tour of nine Central African countries in 12 days, Mr. Annan was fingered by the New Yorker magazine as the one solely responsible for the world's failure to prevent the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. And there he was, not two weeks ago, facing hostile Tutsi survivors.

Mr. Annan described to a group of journalists his visit to a site of mass executions. "Will you be here next time?" a Rwandan had scornfully asked, taking him for the world community. Mr. Annan had had no answer. Unlike the Rwandan fatalist, he prefers not to accept the inevitability of next time.

Mr. Annan had additional business on the continent. He negotiated access to food relief for portions of Sudan that had been starved and kept off limits to aid providers by its government.

He discussed refugees. African governments had always welcomed them in much greater numbers, proportionately, than the United States. Now those governments see refugees as problems, not as vulnerable people needing help.

Mixed with refugees are "the armies of losers," young soldiers of a dozen lost civil wars, "floating around the region, just outside society, with guns."

But preoccupation with crisis obscures those African governments that are managing their economies better, "determined to see democracy given a good start." Who notices that?

Africa, however, is hardly Kofi Annan's biggest problem.

That must explain why Canada's ambassador to the United States, Raymond Chretien, invited him to dinner Tuesday on the roof of the Canadian embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, spectacularly close to the brilliantly lighted Capitol dome, facing a dozen titans of the Washington press corps and one obscure Baltimorean among the guests.

So the short and articulate Ghanaian, who long ago went to college in Minnesota and embarked on a safe career as a U.N. bureaucrat, stood in the ambassador's dining room and talked without notes about his trip to Africa, and then about everything anyone asked -- Kosovo, Indonesia, nuclear rivalry in South Asia, national jealousies bedeviling Security Council expansion -- with an uncanny mixture of candor and tact.

And, oh yes, he dealt with the problem of massive arrears of U.S. dues to the United Nations, since someone brought it up.

"I thought we would get paid this year. We did the reforms. It is not easy to get 185 countries to agree, but they did. The money has not come."

He has spoken to both sides, the administration and Congress. He has heard encouraging noises.

What if the United States does not pay? After two years of nonpayment, it is supposed to be automatic that a country would lose its vote in the General Assembly, but only there, keeping its vote and veto in the Security Council, which some members think unfortunate.

"I hope that will not happen," Mr. Annan said dryly, "It would complicate the relationship."

Well, how damaging is this, really?

He mentioned Fiji, a poor island nation of 700,000 souls in the far Pacific. It posts peacekeeping soldiers on the Israel-Lebanon border, doing a job for the world. The United Nations is supposed to reimburse Fiji $4 million and cannot pay. Fiji can't afford this.

He was talking about Iraq and the U.N. weapons inspectors working under great adversity, earning his admiration, ridding Iraq of more weapons than U.S. bombing did.

And then it was over. Kofi Annan was gone, heading back to New York. The Capitol dome was still brilliant, dominating the Washington night sky.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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