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Thursday, 26 February, 1998, 17:05 GMT
A turning point for the UN?
Annan welcome
A hero's welcome
by Steve Herrmann

The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was given a hero's welcome on his return to UN headquarters after signing a deal with Iraq on weapons inspections.

The agreement is widely seen as a personal triumph for the Ghanaian diplomat and his quiet but assured style. It is also seen as providing a much-needed boost to the United Nations as an organisation.

Annan persuaded the US of the merits of going to Baghdad
The immediate outcome of Mr Annan's mission is in contrast with another, less successful mission to Baghdad, by his predecessor as UN Secretary General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, in 1991. That mission failed to prevent the Gulf War.

In the years since, the UN has suffered a succession of blows to its credibility.

Past failures

The UN peacekeeping operation in Somalia was meant to be a milestone in its history as the first such operation following the collapse of communism and the start of what was meant to be a New World Order.

But by the time UN troops pulled out in 1995, at the end of a costly two-year mission, they left a country on the brink of civil war, with no central government and thousands of armed militiamen on the streets of its capital.

More than 200 UN troops were killed in the course of a chaotic operation where political objectives and even the military chain of command were often far from clear.

Bosnian UN
UN forces in Bosnia
The early hopes vested in the UN "peacekeeping" operation in Bosnia quickly faded as the difficulty of its mandate became clear. Tasked with remaining neutral in the midst of a raging war, UN forces on the ground came to be seen as impotent.

There was no peace to keep, and the UN force had neither the physical presence nor the diplomatic backing to enforce one. If anything, the UN was used as a scapegoat by the West as the conflict dragged on.

Rwandan refugees: The UN was blamed for not stopping the killings which sparked the exodus
Leaders in Rwanda still bear a grudge against the UN for its failure to stop the genocide of 1994. The UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, Unamir, was given no mandate or means to intervene to stop the carnage in the country's civil war.

A new era?

So does Kofi Annan's apparently successful defusing of the Iraqi weapons crisis now herald a turning point for the UN, the start of an era where it can fulfil its destiny as the world's conscience and peacekeeper?

Sceptics might point to the conspicuous lack of unity among the five permanent members of the Security Council right up to the last minute before Mr Annan's departure for Baghdad.

The US was careful to reserve its right to act in its own national interests, whatever the outcome of his visit. Britain backed Washington's readiness to use force. Russia, China and France insisted diplomacy would work.

Madeleine Albright on the Baghdad deal: "We will see how it fits with our national interests"
But the five agreed a mandate for Mr Annan's mission, which allowed him to negotiate in Baghdad with the necessary authority.

Whether that united front will survive if the dispute flares up again is another matter. Washington and Britain want to see an immediate military response should Saddam Hussein renege on the deal. Other Security Council members are less sure.

Force mattered

But it is the readiness to resort to military force if diplomacy fails which Kofi Annan highlighted after his talks in Baghdad: "You can do a lot with diplomacy, but of course you can do a lot more with diplomacy backed up by firmness and force," he said.

This statement of realpolitik by the world's top diplomat provides the key to understanding the success of his, and the UN's, involvement in the latest Iraqi crisis.

He is widely acknowledged to be a consummate negotiator and diplomat, and these skills doubtless played a large part in persuading Iraq's leaders of the need to comply with the UN's will.

The American build-up of forces in the Gulf was conspicuous
But there was a lack of ambiguity about the consequences of defying the international community which must also have focused Saddam Hussein's mind. The Gulf War in 1991, Nato intervention in Bosnia in 1995, and the prominent military build-up of recent weeks in the Gulf all must have helped persuade him that American-led military intervention in the crisis was a real possibility.

Back at the UN in New York, amid the personal praise for his own efforts and the talk of a resurgence of the organisation's fortunes, Mr Annan commented to his assembled colleagues and the rest of the world on the success of his mission: "We taught our peacekeepers that the best way to use force is to show it, in order not to have to use it."

Whether the big powers will apply this lesson and back future UN missions with a similar show of force may well determine how the organisation fares in crises to come.


The BBC's John Leyne: Annan managed to keep the backing of the big powers (Dur: 0' 45")
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