When the U.S. 4th Infantry Division pulled Saddam Hussein from his hole in the ground on December 13, 2003, the Iraqi dictator was meek, bizarrely offering to negotiate with the U.S. By contrast, Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general who strained every sinew to stop the war of liberation and now aims to thwart U.S. postwar plans, remains thoroughly defiant.
Yet if there is one person on the international stage who deserves to be called to account for his conduct over Iraq, it is Kofi Annan. Missing from the debate on how and where Saddam should be tried has been any discussion about those whose actions sustained the Iraqi dictator in power. It is not just that Annan famously called Saddam Hussein in February 1998 somebody “I can do business with.” It is that the U.N. secretary general has persistently put the interests of Saddam’s victims last, while making the concerns of the Baathist regime, the Arab states, and Iraq’s meddlesome neighbors his top priority. Not only has the secretary general shown little interest in Iraqi human rights, he has made a habit of lobbying against the U.S., both before and after the war. Annan has substituted bad faith for this previous record of being complicit in perpetuating Saddam’s dictatorship.
While Iraqi exiles lobbied the U.N. for years to set up a war-crimes tribunal for Iraq, the U.N. waited until U.S. tanks entered Baghdad in April 2003 to discover the issue of human rights in Iraq. As if by magic, the torpor of U.N. disinterest that had led to years of inconclusive U.N. human-rights reports was lifted. With brazen opportunism the U.N. sent Mona Rishmawi, the special adviser to the U.N. commissioner for human rights, to Baghdad to talk about human rights, even though her previous work on Iraq has been vanishingly thin but her efforts for the Palestinian cause rather substantial. Like so many human-rights activists, Ms. Rishmawi has demonstrated a selective indignation that has ignored the suffering of Iraqis.
Even the post-liberation U.N. concept of what counts as human-rights leaves something to be desired. U.N. officials are openly fretting that de-Baathification might involve a violation of due process, forgetting that the rule of Saddam Hussein meant for the estimated 300,000 missing Iraqis no process but murder. Kofi Annan, speaking to the U.N. Security Council on December 16, 2003, called for Saddam Hussein to be tried “through a procedure that meets the highest international standards of due process.”
In the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Iraq, Kofi Annan had little to say about the horror of the newly discovered mass graves. Instead, taking his cue from the Arab states, he was forthright in expressing his concern that Kurds might evict the Arab colonists who had stolen their land. The U.N., which has much to say about Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, has always been reticent about the largest settlement program in the Middle East, the 40-year-long campaign to colonize Iraqi Kurdistan with Arabs.
More insidious was the way in which U.N. agencies spent years undermining the U.N.-imposed sanctions on Iraq rather than enforce basic human-rights norms to protect Iraqis. The U.N. human-rights rapporteur for Iraq, Andreas Mavromatis, decided that the impact of the U.N.-imposed sanctions was part of his human-rights remit, which involved four years of futile letter-writing and one brief, regime approved, trip to Iraq.
The U.N. agencies took their campaign against U.N. sanctions to great lengths. UNICEF did wonders for Iraqi propaganda by circulating the bogus claim that a half million Iraqi children had died because of sanctions. The half-million figure was a statistical extrapolation, not a death toll. UNICEF, using Iraqi-government figures, projected the declining infant mortality of the 1980s forward into the 1990s. The U.N. agency then compared this declining trend with supposedly rapidly rising infant mortality following the imposition of sanctions, information based on a survey which it undertook in Saddam’s police state. The gap between these two trend lines was the equivalent of a half million lost potential births, which is not the same as a half million deaths. UNICEF made little effort to correct this most misleading impression. Meanwhile, the infant mortality rate was tumbling in Iraqi Kurdistan, despite that region suffering from both U.N. and Iraqi-government sanctions, disproving the notion that the sanctions had caused infant deaths.
Unsurprisingly, when the foreign minister of liberated Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari, an Iraqi Kurd, spoke to the U.N. Security Council on December 16, 2003, three days after the arrest of Saddam Hussein, he failed to engage in diplomatic niceties. Zebari told the Security Council that: “The United Nations as an organization failed to help rescue the Iraqi people from a murderous tyranny that lasted over 35 years and today we are unearthing thousands of victims in horrifying testament to that failure. The United Nations must not fail the Iraqi people again.”
Kofi Annan, who after meeting Saddam in February 1998 had avowed himself to be “impressed by his decisiveness,” was not taken with Zebari’s honesty. Rather than take the opportunity to express remorse for the U.N.’s actions, Annan instead criticized Zebari, telling him that: “Now is not the time to pin blame and point fingers.” The UN secretary general, quick to criticise the U.S. for enforcing U.N. resolutions in Iraq and ever ready to censure Israel, is an expert on finger pointing.
So while Saddam Hussein, deloused and shaven courtesy of the U.S. army, awaits judgment, the U.N. secretary general inexplicably still holds court in Turtle Bay. Putting the U.N. secretary general on trial by Iraqis is not a realistic option, but depriving him, like his former Baathist friend, of the power to do more harm surely is. What is good for the Iraqi goose should be good for the U.N. gander.
–Andrew Apostolou is Director of Research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute created after 9/11 and focusing on terrorism.