(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

IRIN Interview with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

As the UN Security Council's "Month of Africa" debate drew to a close last week after heads of state from around Africa
addressed the world body, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke to IRIN about the key issues.

In a wide-ranging interview, he addressed the wars in Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. He also answered questions on the crisis in Burundi and charges that the UN had failed to stop the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda. He agreed more should have been done to stop the return to war in Angola a year ago.

But he also insisted that governments too had to bear more of the
responsibility in Africa. Raising Africa to the top of the world agenda for the start of the New Year and the millennium, he said, had made a "tremendous" contribution towards awareness and understanding of the continent's problems.

The following are his answers to the questions put by IRIN:

The Security Council debate:

IRIN: What do you think the Security Council's Africa month can achieve, beyond words and well meaning recommendations from the international community?

ANNAN: The "Month of Africa" in the Security Council of Africa has had tremendous impact on the world's consciousness - and conscience. More than that, I believe it has served as a genuine catalyst to explore possible solutions to some of the major problems that the region faces, from the conflicts in Burundi, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the impact of AIDS and the plight of refugees and displaced persons.

The Council meeting on Angola, for example, provided an excellent
opportunity to reinforce the Council's view on the root causes of the conflict and to advocate the need for a political settlement. It also provided information on the ability of UNITA rebels to circumvent arms and diamond sanctions; Ambassador Robert Fowler of Canada, the Chairman of the Security Council Sanctions Committee, will make further recommendations on
how to strengthen that sanctions regime.

The Burundi meeting drew attention to the problem of regroupment - and, in fact, was accompanied by an announcement by the Government of Burundi that it would begin to dismantle some of the camps in Bujumbura Rural. And the meetings [last] week on the Democratic Republic of Congo promise to bring
together many of the leaders whose cooperation is vital to any progress in bringing peace to that country.

In other words, the "Month of Africa" was a success not merely in drawing attention to the persistence of many of the region's long-running conflicts, but in giving a push to actual peace efforts. The real test now is for the momentum to be sustained.

Angola:

IRIN: To what extent do you accept the criticism, most recently expressed by Human Rights Watch, that the UN's shortcomings precipitated the return to civil war in Angola?

ANNAN: I am aware of the criticisms made by various human rights bodies. I agree that the United Nations and the international community as a whole should have done more in Angola. However, I believe that in this case, the international community has accepted that the central problem that led to the collapse of the peace process was the failure of the National Union for
the Total Independence of Angola [UNITA-Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola] to comply with the Lusaka peace process.

After more than four years of vigorous efforts by the United Nations, UNITA failed to demobilise its forces and to allow State administration to be extended to areas under its control. I finally had to conclude last year that the conditions for an effective UN peacekeeping presence had ceased to exist. I have proposed that the United Nations should intensify its role in
the areas of humanitarian assistance and human rights activities and be available, if the parties so wish, to assist in the search for a political solution.

Rwanda:

IRIN: The independent inquiry into the UN's role during the 1994 Rwanda genocide has produced a critical report. Are you planning to visit Rwanda as a result, and how does the UN intend to follow up on this report and prevent the recurrence of such a failure?

ANNAN: As you know, I visited Rwanda not long ago. Although I have no immediate plans to visit Rwanda again, I expect to make my own recommendations shortly on ways to follow up on the report - as well as on the separate report into the Srebrenica massacre [in Bosnia, July 1995]. I also held extensive discussions with President Pasteur Bizimungu of Rwanda when he visited New York this week for the UN summit on DRC.

The United Nations is committed to doing everything possible to prevent genocide happening again. In several conflicts - most recently those in Sierra Leone, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of Congo - the United Nations has played the lead role in urging nations to act firmly and expeditiously to prevent a recurrence of the wide-scale killings we saw in Rwanda. But it is also up to Governments to do their part to act whenever
the threat of genocide looms.

Democratic Republic of Congo:

IRIN: The situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is rapidly deteriorating, with the Lusaka peace accords apparently falling apart. Does the Secretary-General feel the UN is doing enough to avoid a return to full-scale war, and do you fear the same criticism will be levelled against it as in 1994 when it prevaricated over how to respond to the unfolding catastrophe in Rwanda?

ANNAN: Just this week, at a meeting of the Security Council which included several Heads of State of African countries concerned with the Congo conflict, I argued that the United Nations must be ready not only to act, but to act in a way that is commensurate with the gravity of the situation. I also urged countries of the region to exercise leadership. At the same
time, however, we must guard against creating inflated expectations about what the United Nations can achieve.

The United Nations has supported the efforts of President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia, of other leaders of the sub-region and of the Organisation of African Unity. My former Special Envoy, Moustapha Niasse, contributed to the diplomatic effort, and I also have in place two Special Representatives,
Kamel Morjane, Special Representative for the DRC, and Berhanu Dinka, Special Representative for the Great Lakes Region, who are assisting the peace process.

The Congolese signatories, with the assistance of the Organisation of African Unity, have taken an encouraging first step in designating Sir Ketumile Masire, former president of Botswana, as the neutral facilitator for these negotiations. His prestige, expertise and moral authority can help reinvigorate the Lusaka process.

However, efforts to deploy UN military liaison officers have been obstructed on the ground. I have urged the UN Security Council to authorise the expansion of the UN Mission in the DRC to a total of 500 military observers (up from 90 at present) supported by roughly 5,000 troops, and I am awaiting action from the Council on my recommendation.

I have always stated that given the complexity of the conflict and the vast and prohibitive terrain, any effective UN peacekeeping effort in the DRC would have to be large and expensive. I hope the international community will see the necessity for such an effort to be organised and deployed
urgently.

BURUNDI:

IRIN: What has the UN done to try and stem the violence in Burundi and what support is it prepared to give the peace mediation efforts of the former South African president, Nelson Mandela?

ANNAN: The UN Secretariat is committed to assisting former President Mandela's peace mediation efforts and has kept close contact with his team to ensure that we provide any support he needs. In addition, UN agencies - most notably the United Nations Development Programme, which has mobilised US $6 million for local communities affected by the crisis - have tried to
provide humanitarian aid.

Yet more needs to be done to push the parties to the conflict to take responsibility for the escalating violence and to make progress in peace efforts. Last week, I urged the Government of Burundi to abandon the inhumane and illegal policy of regroupment of innocent civilians. As long as the camps exist, I have also urged the Government to allow access to independent humanitarian agencies and to ensure the safety of all
humanitarian workers.

Sierra Leone:

IRIN: What is being done to speed up the deployment of UNAMSIL, the UN Mission in Sierra Leone, and how will you ensure that when the time comes to withdraw existing troops, Sierra Leone does not slip back into chaos?

ANNAN: UNAMSIL is in fact being deployed throughout Sierra Leone, with battalions from Ghana, India, Kenya and Nigeria taking up positions in major points across the country this month. A battalion from Guinea is expected to be deployed soon. To prevent a security gap occurring following the announced withdrawal of [West African] ECOMOG troops, I have urged the
Security Council to authorise an expansion in the troop strength of UNAMSIL, from its current ceiling of 6,000 troops to one of 11,100 troops.

The Council has yet to vote on such an expansion, but it is my hope that they will proceed to do so by the first week of February. If they can authorise such an expansion, it is my hope that the UN Mission can be sufficiently strong to prevent a deterioration in the situation there. In the meantime, it is important to ensure a smooth transition of security
responsiblities in Sierra Leone pending the full deployment of an expanded UNAMSIL.

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