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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 September 2005, 00:41 GMT 01:41 UK
Full text: Kofi Annan's BBC interview
The following is the full text of an interview UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has given to BBC World Service's Lyse Doucet in London.

Q: Let us start with the crisis in the southern US states. Has the aftermath of this disaster shocked you?

Kofi Annan during the BBC interview
Mr Annan says he is facing critical weeks

A: Yes, it's been a huge disaster. I don't think at the beginning one realised the extent of the damage in the disaster.

And you know, we offered assistance very early on.

And in these kinds of crises, it's extremely difficult during the first few days, and effective co-ordination is key; because you need to be able to tell people who are offering assistance where to get it to, whom to take it to, and to be able to ensure that you are making demands for what is needed, and you are not getting more of the same.

We have had quite a lot of experience of co-ordinating such huge crises around the world, of course, and we have offered to assist, both in terms of working with governments to bring in additional material, but also effectively to put our comparative advantage to use in coordination.

There is corruption in our world - there is corruption in every institution - the UN is a reflection of the world outside

So we have a team in Washington discussing how we can cooperate with the Administration.

Q: Well, as you say, you offered it early on, but they accepted it only recently. And they've been criticised for being too slow to respond. Did that exacerbate the crisis?

A: Well, I'm not sure that I can say that it did exacerbate the crisis. But it is a huge, huge crisis. In addition to co-ordination, you need to get the logistical apparatus in place....

Q: But then the Americans got food and support into the tsunami-affected areas in Indonesia before they got helicopters in the air for Louisiana.

A: Well, I'm not sure -.obviously the comparison will always be there; the comparison between the tsunami (disaster) and this one.

And I think the only way they compare is in both situations the force of nature - we really were humbled by the force of nature in the tsunami that hit two continents and 12 countries in seven hours.

And then, of course, we have what has happened in the Gulf Coast of the United States.

But what is important is not for us to discuss what they should have done sooner - why the delays - but to get urgent assistance to those in need. And we need to really organise ourselves and work together to get that done.


Q: But around the world many people are expressing disbelief that this anarchy, suffering, chaos could be happening in the world's superpower. Do you share that disbelief?

A: That is unfortunate.

Yes, I share that disbelief - because normally, when you have these sorts of crises, people tend to be humble; they tend to empathise with each other; they tend to come together. We saw it during the crisis in the tsunami.

You have certain elements in American society - the right-wing group and certain (members of the) press who have been very negative and very aggressive and have been systematically attacking us

So, for those who have seen that kind of experience, with people who had very little trying to help each other - I was in Indonesia, in Sri Lanka, in the Maldives; some people were living on islands that were washed away; other islands were not as badly affected, but they went to help those on the damaged islands, and they were all were pooling their efforts, even before the international assistance came.

Q: As you know, disasters sometimes provide opportunities. And is this an opportunity for the United Nations to show its expertise, to show what it can do in the country that's been at the front line of its critics?

A: Absolutely. We would want to be helpful. And the United States itself has been very generous in other people's crises.

And this is why I think it's important that we, the United Nations, and other countries return the favour, now that they are in need.

And you are right: a crisis does offer an opportunity. One good example is the agreement between the Indonesian government and the Acehnese movement.

I recall being there in January and telling (Indonesian) President Yudhoyono: "You and the rebels are going to work together to deal with this crisis. You should use it as a confidence-building measure and move on to settle your differences."

Q: This would ease some of the criticism by those in the White House who say the UN is not good at anything.

A: Exactly.

Balance needed

Q: Is it all a lesson as well for the international community? There's been much criticism of the Bush Administration - that it focused too much energy and resources on the global war against terror. Does it remind everyone that other goals, other threats must also not be forgotten?

A: Yes. This is the theme of the report of the high-level panel that I set up: that there are many threats in the world, and we need to focus and deal with all of them, from poverty to terrorism to weapons of mass destruction to environmental degradation.

And about four or five years ago, my annual report to the UN General Assembly focused on natural disasters.

I was warning the member states that we're going to see more and more natural disasters; we need to be prepared; we need to have better early-warning systems; the costs are going to be astronomical. And here we are.

Obviously each government has to decide how it spends its resources. But in making that kind of judgement a balance is needed to ensure that other concerns are addressed as well.

Q: Is that the lesson of Louisiana?

A: I think it's the lesson of Louisiana, not just for the Americans but for all the countries.

US amendments

Q: Kofi Annan, in a few days' time, what's been described as the largest ever gathering of world leaders will start in New York. You have described it as "nothing less than a mandate and a vision to change the world". Are you angry that the US is now trying to hijack it?

Q: I had expected the member states really to move much faster and be much more focused and much more business-like.

Because a lot of effort went into this. I first set up a high-level panel of 16 wise men and women to discuss the topic: the challenges, threats and change that we face now.

And they did, and they came up with a very competent report. We also put together another group, led by Jeffrey Sachs, of 240 economists and development experts, who looked at the Millennium Project and did a Millennium Project report.

Having studied those two documents, I synthesised their ideas and gave them a document title "In Larger Freedom", which is the basic document on which they were to work. And I wanted to make sure they had as much time as possible.

Q: So you worked on it for about a year; a team has been working on it for some six months; weeks ago 750 amendments come from the US Ambassador, John Bolton.

A: Yes. I think it's unfortunate that these proposals came this late.

Because, when you are in negotiations, if one party makes a move, the dynamics are such that it affects the others, and they either consider that the floodgates are open and they can come with their own amendments or they should hold the line and not move.

And so they place tactical blocks on key aspects of the proposal.


Q: Is the United States trying to push you around again?

A: Well, I'm not sure it's me they are pushing around. It's the other member states that they will have to explain this to.

And of course the US - in my discussions with Secretary of State (Condoleezza) Rice and the president, they have both assured me that they consider the reform important.

Ms Rice has told me they will be constructive; they will work with us; they are interested in many aspects of the reform.

Of course, they don't like everything in the document; but they have a leadership position in the organisation, and they are also the host country.

Q: Well, indeed. But John Bolton is now saying that, if there isn't agreement, you'll have to settle for a statement of principles - or different sections agreed by different countries.

A: You cannot negotiate on that basis. I went to New York last week and I met the member states and I told them that no country is going to get everything that it wants.

Q: But John Bolton says that, if he doesn't get what he wants, he's not going to sign. There is a risk of failure.

A: I think this is one of the things that frustrates me about the United Nations.

We have tended to define consensus as unanimity. Where you have a large majority of members who want something, one should not allow a small minority to withhold their consent unreasonably.

They should have the courage to vote and take decisions. But they tend to want to get consensus at all costs, and therefore you have 191 vetoes.

0.7% target

Q: Is there a risk of failure?

A: I hope not. I think they are beginning to wake up. I will be able to make that judgement, let's say, by the end of Wednesday.

I think we have a couple of days in which to salvage this process. But to do that, it requires a maturity and leadership and appreciation of what we are trying to do.

I think this is a once in a generation opportunity that we have to do this. And if we fail, I don't know when the opportunity will come again.

Q: Can you fight poverty if, as the United States demands, you remove the target for countries to give 0.7% of their national income?

A: I think the idea of expunging the phrase "Millennium Development Goals" from the document is not on. It's a phrase that has been embraced by the whole world.

Q: Including the United States?

A: Including the United States, and including civil society and governments and financial and international institutions.

And this is the first time we have such a framework. So you cannot just discard it.

On the question of 0.7%, I'm very grateful to the European Union for the timetable they came up with for meeting that target.

It's been around for 30 years. It was reaffirmed in Monterey three years ago.

The US has indicated that it will give aid to the developing world, but it will not tie itself to the 0.7% target.

Q: So you have a problem then? Because the Make Poverty History campaign is already saying they're worried that, if the Millennium Development Goals are removed, if the target is removed, that fighting poverty will just be a footnote at that summit next week.

A: And this is why I think that anyone who tries to remove it is going to fail.

A large membership will not allow it; and the civil society will be extremely upset.

And in fact, unless you have a target and set goals - the goals are simple; every man and woman in the street understands it: to reduce poverty; to ensure they have clean water, their daughters are in school, they are in decent health.

These are simple objectives. And people want to live in dignity. We have to respect their human dignity and we have to give them dreams and targets to meet. And I don't think anyone is going to agree to remove them.

US relations

Q: When John Bolton came to the United Nations, you told him he had to operate in a spirit of give and take. He didn't take your advice, did he?

A: But I think, whether he took my advice or not, reality is going to bring it home forcefully. Because, as I indicated, we have 190 other ambassadors.

And any ambassador who wants to make progress has to try and persuade the others. And if an ambassador doesn't want to co-operate, doesn't want to give and take, when this issue comes up, he's going to have the same resistance from the others.

And in the end you can't be effective.

Q: But you can't have a global commitment to fighting poverty if the United States isn't on board on all the key issues, can you?

A: To some extent - let's say it will be more difficult. I will not say it will be impossible - I will say it will be slower.

I will say it will be slower; and I would also say that I will be surprised if the US would want to place themselves in that box, in that situation, of being the ones who are seen to be against the interests of the poor - as being the ones who want to ignore the needs and the human dignity of others.

After all, the phrases "freedom from fear" and "freedom from want" came from an American President. And everybody has embraced them, and I am confident that the US will not back away from that.

Q: This would be a failure, wouldn't it, because the process of reform is not just about restoring the United Nations' credibility - it's also about re-engaging with the United States, which has been, as you know, your strongest critic. If you don't do that, you won't have succeeded.

A: Let me say that my relations with the US are not as bad as it appears in the press.

There are levels of US society. With the Administration, we work very well together, with the president himself and Secretary of State Condi Rice.

In fact, in the last few days, we have spoken since the Katrina Hurricane hit the Gulf Coast.

But you have certain elements in American society - the right-wing group and certain (members of the) press who have been very negative and very aggressive and have been systematically attacking us.

And, of course, I'm the face of the United Nations. And so if you want to destroy the United Nations, to discredit it, you have to focus on the face and the leader. It's easier to attack an individual than an institution.

And they sometimes forget that the institution of the United Nations is the 191 states, including their own country, including the United States.

So the failures of the United Nations are their failures too. And the successes of the UN are theirs. They sometimes behave as if the UN is a satellite somewhere, headed by this secretary general who wants to disturb our world.

'Mistakes made'

Q: Do you suspect that those critics you mention may be behind the timing of the next independent report on the oil-for-food scandal, coming this week? It couldn't have come at a worse time?

A: I wouldn't say they were behind. The committee - the independent investigative committee which I set up, headed by (Paul) Volcker, has had lots of work to do.

They've had some setbacks. And in fact originally, they had intended to finish their work by July. As things stand now, they will not finish it till October.

And I think I and the other member states want to get to the bottom of this. We want to know the truth; we want to learn the lessons that are necessary; and we want to improve our organisation as we move forward.

Yes, there were inadequacies; mistakes were made. But one should not forget the climate and the circumstances under which that programme was set up. One should also not forget the concessions that had to be made to get Saddam Hussein to agree.

Today, people talk as if we were setting up something to compete with Walmart, when in fact what you had was not a straightforward commercial arrangement.

It was a cumbersome arrangement which we worked out with the Iraqis; and on top of that was heavy bureaucratic and political machinery.

Q: But you regret that you didn't keep a closer eye on it? Because there has been criticism that you had an inadequate response to the investigation, that you weren't sufficiently across the mismanagement, the abuses?

A: I think it's easy to make some of these judgements, with the cold and merciless judgement of hindsight.

Q: It was a $64bn programme....

A: I'm not saying that things didn't go wrong. What I'm telling you is that it was not easy. There are areas I was responsible for, and I accept responsibility for inadequacies and failures.

But there were large areas of the programme - decision and responsibility centres - which were outside my control or authority.

And here I'm looking at who selected the companies that bought oil; who selected the companies that sold humanitarian goods and medicine.

It was the government of Iraq which negotiated all these things. And therefore it was very difficult for outsider to control their manipulation. And these contracts were approved by the 661 committee. We had certain tasks and responsibilities. If there were failures, I have no problem admitting them.

'Braced for report'

Q: Yes, but ultimately you're the head of the United Nations, and ultimately the responsibility rests with you. It was a UN oil-for-food programme.

A: Let me put it this way: that the secretary of the UN is not the CEO in the American sense.

Q: But you never considered perhaps resigning or taking ultimate responsibility for what went wrong?

A: I think the member states who were involved in this know exactly what went wrong.

And I would urge them to speak up when the report is given to them. I've encouraged the Volcker report to present the report to the Security Council in an open session.

Q: You're referring to governments like the United States, like Britain, which knew, for example, of the smuggling of oil - they didn't keep an eye on it as well? Is this what you're referring to?

A: No. I think it should be discussed frankly, and of course they understand the political climate, the environment, the circumstances under which this programme was established. And quite honestly, the objective was to ensure that Iraq disarmed.

Q: Let's bring it up to this week. Are you braced for devastating criticism on Wednesday, when the Volcker report is published?

A: I will have to wait for the report. Yes, I am braced, and we are all ready.

And I suspect there will be lots of criticism, to go across from myself, as chief admin officer, probably something about the 661 committee, the Security Council, the government of Iraq and all that.

When it comes to Iraq, on this issue, no-one is entirely covered in glory.

Q: But for you, it comes at a time when you need the strongest hand possible: a critical summit beginning on reform. And for your critics, the oil-for-food is the symbol of UN incompetence, inefficiency and corruption.

A: I think that is absolutely unfair.

First of all, the UN is not oil-for-food. We have a whole range of activities.

Oil-for-food was an extra programme we were asked to undertake. Honestly, I wish we had never been given that programme, and I wish the UN will never be asked to undertake that kind of a programme again.

There were failures; there were inadequacies; there were situations that we couldn't deal with. But what is important is that we draw the lessons - we reform the organisation, both in policy and managerial issues.

And that's why my package before them includes management reform. And I think what you're saying is one more reason that the member states should embrace reform, particularly on the management side.

'Culture of corruption'

Q: And sadly for you there's a personal dimension to this. The leaks suggest that you will be personally cleared of any wrongdoing, but your son Kojo will again be in the spotlight for trading on his father's name.

A: That's unfortunate, and it is something that is always painful for a father.

As I have indicated, this whole process has been painful for me, as the secretary general and as a father. But I will let the report stand for itself.

Q: So the lesson for you personally in this - as a father; as the UN secretary general?

A: I think it's something, as a father, and between my son and myself, that I want to keep to myself.

As UN secretary general, I think I've answered your question already.

Q: How vast, how deep do you think corruption is in the United Nations? One of your former employees has described it as "a culture of corruption".

A: I think that is unfair.

We have lots of hard-working men and women who take risks to work for the organisation, who go to distant places to help others. One of them is in this room.

He was in Iraq: Ahmed Fawzi. He left Iraq a week before 23 of our best people and my best friends were killed in Iraq, going there to try to help. These are hardworking people who should not be maligned and whose reputations should not be impugned.

Yes, there is corruption in our world. There is corruption in every institution. The UN is a reflection of the world outside.

We want to maintain high standards. And there is no doubt that there are some bad apples amongst us. And we are determined to deal with them as actively as possible.

And I've had to lift immunity for several recently so that the criminal justice (system) can take its course.

But to exaggerate and say the UN is a den of thieves or is totally corrupt - we can level that charge against any government, any organisation.

I don't think any institution can go through the scrutiny, the scrubbing we've gone through and come out squeaky-clean.

This is a $35m investigation. We opened ourselves up. We gave them all the support. I encouraged them even to look at my own financial statement, beginning from 1998 through last month or June.

So we've really opened ourselves up. And when you compare the size of the operation - 64bn, as you say - I will first of all have to say that it's not 64bn, because we gave about 10bn to the coalition, to the CPA in Iraq, to use for Iraqi development.

'Muslims victimised'

Q: There are allegations of corruption in that as well.

A: Yes, and we're waiting to see if the committee covers that also.

So when you compare the size of the programme and the review that has been done with other situations, for people to say that the UN is packed with thieves and corrupt people - one has to put things in perspective.

Q: And you mention Iraq. A year ago, you told the BBC that the invasion of Iraq was illegal. Do you worry that Muslim anger over what's happening in Iraq is still fuelling tension, including attacks on cities like London?

A: I think there are many Muslims who are extremely unhappy today - unhappy because they feel victimised, they feel isolated - you've come from that region.

They feel victimised in their own society; they feel victimised in the West. And they feel there's profiling against them.

And the Iraqi situation has not helped matters. In fact, one used to be worried about Afghanistan being the centre of terrorist activities.

My sense is that Iraq has become a major problem and in fact is worse than Afghanistan.

Q: Is it fuelling a recruitment drive by the most militant of organisations?

A: Angry young people who have emotional and nationalistic or religious feeling may be inclined to sign on or would be very angry to see what is happening in what they would describe as the "occupation", or one thing or the other - because they will not take the time to sit back and analyse.

They only base their decisions on what they see on television.

'Critical weeks'

Q: Finally, Kofi Annan: these next two weeks. You were under incredible pressure, as the secretary general and as a person. Are these almost the two most critical weeks of your eight years as the head of the United Nations?

A: It is critical. It is a critical two weeks. But I've seen other critical two weeks.

(Laughs) But it is extremely important. The stakes are high. And I really hope that we will be able to have a successful summit.

I have told the ambassadors that they should not expect their leaders to come to New York and negotiate a document.

Normally, the chairpersons, the ambassadors, prepare the ground for their heads of states. And they're coming for a serious meeting. They are coming to reform the UN. They are coming to decide on collective security.

They are coming to decide what we do about terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation. They are coming to discuss how we fight poverty and assist the poor.

So when the leaders come and the basic document and the agreement that they should put before them to agree on is not done, what are they in New York for?

Whom are they representing? How do their leaders go back home and say: "We went to New York"; and they (the people) ask: "What did you do? What did you achieve?" Do they expect them to throw up their arms?

We've had a very good year, with the EU decision on Aids, with the G8 remission on debt relief and the determination to move ahead and make the Doha Round a development round.

And they have a very good basis to work on, and I hope the ambassadors will in the end deliver. All eyes are on them. They shouldn't be seen as people who are good negotiators but can never come to a deal.

Q: So there is a chance the opportunity will not be lost?

A: There is a chance it won't be lost.

Q: But there is a chance it could fail?

A: I don't want to contemplate that. (laughs)

Kofi Annan, thank you very much.

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