31 August 2018: Hours after former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan died on 18 August, The New Yorker published a bizarre attack on him by staff writer Philip Gourevitch. As head of the UN’s peacekeeping department in the 1990s, said Gourevitch, Annan had “presided over the ignominious failures” of “missions in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia,” and right until his death “had steadfastly refused to acknowledge any meaningful sense of personal or institutional responsibility for these debacles.”  Annan also was a “figure of preternatural calm” who “appeared, even to those who worked most closely with him, to be a man devoid of anger, who would never take things personally.” 

The following paragraphs tell what really happened in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia, and why Annan—and some of his predecessors as Secretary-General—were grand stoics.   

Somalia has the longest coastline of any African nation and commands sea lanes of arterial importance to world trade. When the Cold War ended, there was jockeying for position in the region among Britain, France and Italy, all with colonial ties to the region. The struggle for control among their proxy warlords pushed the wretchedly poor country into a civil war and a humanitarian disaster.

The United Nations was brought in to monitor a declared but nonexistent ceasefire and aid the victims of a massive famine. In that situation George Bush, in the wake of his defeat in the 1992 presidential election and just 47 days before the end of his administration, decided to help by sending a military force of over 20,000 to Somalia. In a television address on 4 December he announced no strategic aim beyond "saving thousands."

The Clinton Administration tried to continue the intervention but in the wake of the violent and humiliating incidents recounted in the Hollywood movie Blackhawk Down, all American forces left the country. (Perhaps also a factor was the hushed-up heist of $14 million in cash, supposedly brought in to bribe the warlords. The money disappeared without a trace but UN scuttlebutt points to an MI6 operation using UN aircraft.) The country imploded after the American withdrawal and all UN activities there became untenable. 

The Hutu and Tutsi tribes had lived peaceably in Rwanda for as long as anyone could remember, sharing a language and culture, and intermarrying so freely it was impossible to tell who belonged to which group. After Belgium assumed control of the region under a League of Nations “Mandate” in 1918 it set about creating a sense of tribal separation by issuing identity cards on the basis of body type: tall, lean people were declared Tutsi, shorter, plumper people were declared Hutu. Those declared Tutsi turned out to be about 14 percent of the population, and they became a privileged power-elite in the colonial state. As that elite began to press for independence in mid-20th Century, the Belgians stirred up the Hutu to perpetrate a mass murder of the Tutsi, setting off a sequence of such events after the end of colonial rule in 1962. That led Tutsi refugees in Uganda to form the Rwanda Patriotic Front, and with the covert aid of Britain, to initiate a civil war. A lightly armed UN peacekeeping force with its logistics unit provided by Belgium went to monitor a shaky ceasefire.

In 1994, as preparations for the genocide in Rwanda came to the attention of the United Nations mission in the country, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali informed the five Permanent Members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russian Federation, United States). They took no action because Britain and France were supporting the opposed sides in the civil war, the Clinton Administration did not want any initiative that would involve large expenditures, and China and Russia were passive.

On 7 April, an aircraft carrying the presidents of Rwanda and neighboring Burundi was shot down by unknown forces, setting off the genocide. A rumor that Belgium was behind the downing of the aircraft led to the killing of some Belgian soldiers in Kigali. Brussels used that as an excuse to withdraw the logistics unit of the UN force, effectively crippling it. France swung into active support of the regime committing the atrocities, and when its murderous forces faced extinction by the RPF, had the Security Council declare a "safe zone" to shelter them. The last of the genocidal killings occurred in the “safe zone.”

The Bosnian tragedy began with a post-Cold War effort by Germany to assuage the losses of history by supporting the independence of Croatia. That began the bloody dismembering of Yugoslavia, with waves of murderous attacks on civilians driving ethnic minorities out of its component parts. Bosnia-Herzegovina, where one in three marriages was inter-ethnic, was ripped apart in a particularly heart-rending manner at the hands of the Bosnian Serb nationalists.

At a conference in London in August 1992 Britain (carrying water for the Serb nationalists), led an effort to engage the United Nations in a peacekeeping role in Bosnia. However, Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali, with quiet support from Washington, was coldly resistant on the grounds that he had not been consulted beforehand. The plan eventually worked out in the UN Security Council envisaged UN “protected zones” for Bosnia’s minorities but lightly armed international peacekeepers proved no match for Serb nationalist militias that massacred thousands of Muslims with impunity. It was not until American bombers entered the picture under NATO aegis that atrocities ended.

Annan was descended from tribal chiefs and that might have contributed to the imperturbability that impressed Gourevitch, but in fact, his refusal to take things personally was a quality shared by three predecessors as Secretary-General: Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant and Javier Perez de Cuellar. Their stoicism was the response of honorable and excellent men to the habitual arrogance of the Permanent Members of the Security Council who have treated any sign of independence by the Secretary-General as a threat to their power and prerogatives. Lesser men have vented anger and frustration in view of their staff, Kurt Waldheim most frequently. Here’s a brief review of what they have endured:

Trygve Lie of Norway was subject to biting public invective from Beijing and Moscow because of his enthusiastic support of the UN intervention in the Korean War. The Peoples Republic of China was not a UN member at the time but the Soviet Union subjected the Secretary-General to a boycott so severe its diplomats would not even shake his hand at social occasions. He resigned in November 1952.

Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden was killed in a plane crash while on a peace mission to the newly independent Congo where Belgium had fielded a mercenary force to retain control of its mining interests in the province of Katanga. In 2011, the 50th anniversary of the crash, a Swedish aid worker wrote of finding eye-witnesses in Zambia who claimed to have seen Hammarskjold’s DC-6 shot down by another aircraft. That led the UN to reopen the official inquiry into the crash. The most likely scenario is that a British Intelligence officer provided the flight information that allowed a Belgian pilot to shoot down Hammarskjold’s aircraft after it had contacted the control tower at Ndola Airport in Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Although the wreck was just a few miles from the airport, the White-minority regime did not report finding it until late the next morning. If not for the delay Hammarskjold would have been found alive. As the witnesses found in 2011 reported that they had been warned to stay away from the crash site early that morning, it is believed that the authorities waited for Hammarskjold to die. A badly burned Security Officer also survived the crash but evidently did not regain consciousness before dying in a local hospital.  

U Thant of Burma ran afoul of the Johnson White House when he began speaking out against the war in Vietnam. He accepted a second term only after a written assurance that he could do so but the mouth cancer he developed made that increasingly difficult.

Kurt Waldheim of Austria was picked to be Secretary-General despite the fact that the Permanent Members of the Security Council knew he had been a Nazi SS officer during World War II. His hidden past ensured that he would remain fully under their control. His decade in office destroyed the integrity of the Secretariat.

Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru was picked after Beijing—newly represented in the Security Council—used its veto sixteen times to prevent Waldheim getting a third term. He proved to be the most effective head the UN has had in over seven decades, negotiating the end of Cold War proxy wars in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt became Secretary-General with the support of the Non-Aligned nations, France, and United States, defeating the British candidate, Bernard Chidzero of Zimbabwe. He did not have the diplomatic experience to deal with the unique organizational dynamics of the UN or the political experience to deal with the new post-Cold War crises (noted above). His habitually pugnacious Non-Aligned attitudes offended Washington, which vetoed his second term.

Kofi Annan of Ghana was the Clinton Administration’s candidate for Secretary-General but relations with Washington became rough with Bush (43) in the White House. A critic of the American invasion of Iraq without Security Council authorization, he was further alienated by the August 2003 bombing of the UN office in Baghdad that killed 20 staffers. His statement that the American occupation of Iraq was “illegal” soured relations with Washington permanently.  

With the selection of Ban Ki-Moon to succeed Kofi Annan the Permanent Members of the Security Council signaled that integrity and intellectual capacity were not qualities they wanted in the Secretary-General. Ban was inarticulate, embarrassingly blunt in comprehension, and had a reputation in South Korean politics for being a “slippery eel.” As US Ambassador John Bolton made clear after leaving office, it was Ban’s low wattage that got him the UN’s top job. An additional factor became evident in his actions as Secretary-General: Ban had obviously made a deal with Britain to help safeguard its global interests in money laundering, drug trafficking and terrorism, issues on which developing countries were pressing for coordinated UN action. 

A whole series of decisions by the Secretary-General led to those issues being dismissed in a single sub-paragraph of 25 words in Agenda 2030, the 15,000+word document that sets goals for long-term sustainable development. Ban’s tenure was marked by varied corruptions but the biggest of them came to light after his departure: the UN Pension Fund (run by his appointee) reported a loss of $3.6 billion in “currency trading.”

Antonio Guterres of Portugal became Secretary-General primarily because of British maneuvers that denied the office to women candidates of integrity and competence. His lack of both those qualities was evident when he picked for the post of Deputy Secretary-General the Nigerian official nominated by Britain who had helped Ban minimize the issues of drug trafficking, money laundering and terrorism in Agenda 2030.

In her new capacity she excluded those issues entirely from the Secretary-General’s benchmark report on implementing Agenda 2030. Meanwhile the text of Agenda 2030 adopted by the General Assembly in 2015 underwent a mysteriously surreptitious change: the reference to terrorism was moved from the context of money laundering and drug trafficking to a new sub-paragraph on national crime and violence.

Guterres himself in a major speech on global corruption omitted mention of tax havens, the network of secrecy jurisdictions that enables Britain to run its global criminal enterprises. It was hardly an obscure matter after the massive leaks of the Panama Papers in 2016 and the Paradise Papers in 2017.

The New Yorker’s attack on Annan is so off-base it invites a speculative back-story. Was the "short illness" that killed Annan poison? And was it administered to stop him from calling for the decriminalization of all psychotropic drugs as the only way to stop drug trafficking? That is a solution supported by many veterans of the long and futile “war on drugs” who point out that cheap and easily produced vegetable substances gain high value entirely because of prohibition. Making them legal would knock out the massive profits that now enable crime cartels and terrorist organizations to trade drugs with impunity. It would allow the problem of drug abuse to be treated as a public health problem.

That hugely beneficial outcome would, of course, destroy a business the British East India Company founded in the 18th Century, and developed with two “Opium Wars in the 19th Century. After the United States sought to end the trade with the 1912 Opium Convention, British companies took it underground, using Chinese “Tongs” (criminal secret societies) to distribute the drug; they founded the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) to launder the proceeds. That was the beginning of two of Britain’s enduring national interests, drug trafficking and money laundering.   

In the 1960s, as its Empire dissolved, Britain expanded those businesses with a new support system of offshore “tax havens” and “secrecy jurisdictions” managed from The City (financial district) of London. During the 1970s that system expanded into the Western Hemisphere with new cocaine cartels in Colombia using the Bahamas as the logistic hub for getting their product into the United States. Globally, the British-controlled money laundering system now processes most of the estimated $500 billion in revenues generated by drug trafficking.

The system is also tied into every form of organized crime worldwide, especially terrorism in the Muslim world, in which too, the British had a founding role as financiers of the Muslim Brotherhood’s first mosque in the colonial Canal Zone of Egypt. The Brotherhood originally provided the British with local muscle. It expanded into terrorism to discourage Jewish emigration to British-controlled Palestine, and then to fight social progressives in the Muslim world. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989) saw the Brotherhood working with the world’s major intelligence agencies to mobilize a jihadist army. 

In the post-Cold War era, the remnants of the Afghan Mujahedin, with continued support from British and Pakistani intelligence services established Al Qaeda as the global base for terrorism. At the same time, the Taliban emerged with the strong backing of  Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI as a contender for power in Afghanistan. (The ISI itself was founded by a British Army officer in 1948.) In 1996 the Taliban took power in Kabul and opened the country to Al Qaeda terrorist training camps. Funding for it all came from the drug trade out of Afghanistan, with British bankers serving as paymasters.  

With trillions of dollars flowing in from its criminal enterprises and the growing capacity to mount plausibly deniable terrorist attacks, Britain moved its imperial resurrection into a more aggressive phase in 2001. The 9/11 attacks in the United States followed by the anthrax mailings to Congress, and the terrorist assault on the Indian parliament a few weeks later marked the high point of that phase. 

The American counterattack that expelled the Taliban from Kabul in 2001 and began the 17-year effort to ensure that it would not be able to return was a setback for Britain, but not critically so. It has maintained the drug flow out of Afghanistan and metastasized Al Qaeda into a number of terrorist organizations in the Middle East and Africa, partly to manage the flow of drugs to the major consuming countries and also to assert itself as a geopolitical factor. ISIS has been a significant factor in relations with Turkey and Boko Haram with Nigeria.  

Little of this narrative about Britain is widely known because London has used the trillion-dollar flows from its underground economy with the strategic aim of silencing critics and buying friends in the fields of mass media, publishing and academia. Evidence of such influence is widespread, ranging from individuals like Noam Chomsky (who excoriates the United States but is blind to Britain's grisly record), to such venerable magazines like The New Yorker.

How can we tell The New Yorker​ is on the take? Consider that the magazine’s current owner, Samuel Irving Newhouse Jr, paid $200 million for it in 1985 when it was earning less than $6 million a year. Without a subterranean subsidy that makes no sense. How can we tell it is from Britain? In 1984 Newhouse appointed British propagandist Tina Brown as editor of Vanity Fair  and in 1992 put her in charge of The New Yorker. The hatchet job on Annan is not the only sign of a British hand directing The New Yorker; almost any article on India in recent decades can be entered in evidence.


Once Boutros-Ghali was out of the picture, the Security Council considered four African candidates. Kofi Annan, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, soon emerged as the front runner. But because he was so clearly Washington’s candidate, France, a firm supporter of Boutros-Ghali, vetoed him several times. Paris relented under growing pressure from African countries but not before exacting a pledge that its nominee would get the post of Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations.

On Friday, 13 December, Kofi Annan, consummate UN insider, was picked to be Secretary-General. He was the first sub-Saharan African to get the post, the first career staff member of the UN, the first with broad administrative experience. He had headed, successively, the offices of Personnel, Finance, Administration and Peacekeeping. Unlike any of his predecessors, he also had a politician’s capacity to relate to people, to charm.

Within the Secretariat, Annan was seen as a new broom that would, at long last, know where to sweep clean. He brought immediate and marked improvement in tone and spirit, but mainly to the top echelon of the Secretariat. At regular weekly meetings of Under- and Assistant-Secretaries (those outside New York participating over the corporate teleconferencing facilities of the World Economic Forum), his collegial lead helped ease long-standing rigidities. Turf battles faded, department Heads cooperated in new thematically oriented management groups. In the larger UN System, he had a similar impact. The traditionally stiff and unproductive meetings of theAdministrative Committee on Coordination (now the Chief Executives Board), relaxed into productivity. For the first time in UN history, the Heads of UN agencies and programs, including the World Bank and the IMF, attended enthusiastically. Real work got done.

On the stultifying internal culture of the Secretariat as a whole, corrupted by many years of low standards and mismanagement, Annan’s impact has been minimal. Staff morale is low and reform efforts have had little impact. After a honeymoon period with the Staff Union, the job of dealing with them was delegated to Under-Secretary-General Joseph O’Connor, a former head of Pricewaterhouse World Company who had arrived at the United Nations as part of the effort to placate critics in Washington. His tendency to ignore due process in making decisions, and on occasion to back out of agreements with staff, created increasing sourness. Efforts by the Staff leadership to see the Secretary-General were fruitless. “As far as you are concerned” Mr. O’Connor told Staff Representatives, “I am the Secretary-General.”

Closely surrounded by a number of well-connected Americans, the Secretary-General’s relations with Washington remained excellent throughout the Clinton administration. In the media he achieved celebrity status. That changed after the Secretary-General failed to support the Bush administration’s march to war in Iraq, and decidedly so after he said publicly that the coalition forces were, as occupiers, bound by the Geneva Conventions. That was seen as perfidy at a time when the neo-conservative activists who led the way into Iraq fully expected American forces as liberators.

The August 2003 bomb attack on the UN Office in Baghdad that killed a number of UN staff members, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy in Iraq, moved Annan into completely new territory in relations with Washington. In his opening speech to the General Assembly session in the fall of 2003, he flagged unilateral use of force as a threat to world order. As the occupation of Iraq became increasingly bloody during 2004, he refused to rebuild the UN’s international presence in the country. A small electoral team was sent in to help with the first Iraqi elections, but it was a minimal effort. As President Bush headed for re-election, the Secretary-General told a BBC interviewer that the American invasion of Iraq was “illegal.”

Against that background, most observers at the United Nations took the first allegations of Annan’s personal involvement in the corruptions of the Iraq Oil for Food Program as retaliation. But the September 2005 findings of the Independent Investigation Commission headed by Paul Volcker have made clear that the charges were not entirely smoke. The Secretary-General’s son, Kojo Annan, was found to be clearly involved in influence peddling. There was incontrovertible evidence that the head of the Iraq oil for food program, Benon Sevan, had helped a small company headed by a friend to get Iraq oil contracts, and strong circumstantial evidence suggesting that he had received $147,000 in bank deposits while that was happening. Sevan claimed the deposits were from a deceased aunt, but she had exhibited few signs of such wealth when alive. A procurement officer dealing with Iraq oil for food contracts was indicted by federal authorities in New York of requesting and receiving bribes, and he implicated over a score of others, including the Chairman of the prestigious Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ).

There was no reasonably conclusive evidence that Kofi Annan had known of his son’s activities, or of the other corruptions in the program. But investigators found that his Chef de Cabinet, Iqbal Riza, had shredded the chron files in his office two days after instructing all UN System officials involved in the Iraq program to preserve all relevant paperwork. The Commission did charge with mismanagement the Secretary-General and Louise Frechette, the Deputy-Secretary-General (a former Canadian Minister of Defense who was appointed in 1998 in the first wave of UN reforms under Annan). Frechette had offered to resign in 2004 after being criticized in a report on the security failures surrounding the August 2003 bombing of the UN Office in Baghdad, but was kept on. She seemed likely to continue in office despite the acid comments of the Volcker Commission on her managerial incompetence, but in early 2006 it was announced that she would be leaving the Secretariat to join a think tank in Canada.

The Iraq war cast a shadow on Kofi Annan’s last years at the UN but his established record as a consummate diplomat helped him through. After the end of his tenure at the UN he has been asked several times to help the UN deal with difficult situations in Africa.