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UN supporters have good reason to engage in vigorous hand wringing. George W. Bush’s aggressive and unilateral policies have made precarious the future of the world, and the world’s only integral body of governance and dialogue. The question facing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has changed from how to circumvent and dilute US power and will over the organization to how much US butt to kiss in order to keep both his job and a shred of integrity for the UN itself.
By daring to challenge US policy on invading Iraq and providing 100% support for Israeli policies, Annan provoked the Bushies’ wrath. In typical Bush style, rather than debate the issues in public fora, Bush uses character assassination to weaken opponents. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) experienced Bush “fair play” tactics in the 2000 South Carolina primary. Just before voting day, an organized group telephoned Republican voters: “McCain was an alcoholic” and worse.
It worked. Bush won the primary; McCain lost a piece of his reputation. During the last months of 2004, the Bush team resurrected equivalent smear methods to undermine Annan and the UN. William Safire, an old Nixon attack dog (speech writer) and a recently retired columnist for the NY Times, accused Annan of protecting his son, Kojo, who had indeed acquired the stench of corruption for his role in the UN Oil-for-Food program in Iraq. Kojo’s less than ethical ways afforded him profits from a Swiss company that the UN contracted to monitor Iraqi imports.
A veritable avalanche of bad press generated a US Senate investigation and one by the UN, led by former Federal Reserve Bank Chair Paul Volcker. By December 1, Minnesota Republican Senator Norm Coleman, who led the Senate Oil-for-Food investigation, joined Safire in the demand for Annan’s resignation.
On December 5, Annan sought refuge from his winter of discontent at the New York apartment of former Clinton administration UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who held a meeting with a group of pro-UN foreign policy experts “to save Kofi and rescue the UN,” said one participant. Those in attendance, reported Agence France Presse (January 3, 2005), advised Annan to dump his top UN managers and repair US relations. Annan had angered Bush when he called “illegal” the US invasion of Iraq (September 2004 BBC interview). Annan added insult to injury a month later by dismissing Bush’s and British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s claims that the invasion had made the world safer.
Annan and the UN then paid the price for his “sassiness.” In an act of subservience, Annan refused to reappoint Peter Hansen, since 1996 the Commissioner-General of the UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees. Since 1950, UNRWA has provided humanitarian aid to four million refugees living in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. According to a UN source quoted in the January 20 Guardian, Annan first warned Hansen in a December 2004 meeting, “I don’t have the political capital with the Americans to keep you.”
In truth, the Israeli government didn’t like Hansen or some of his UNRWA officials. Prime Minister Sharon asked for and got Washington’s support in its “fire Hansen” campaign. Sharon’s spokesmen had dubbed the Dutch Hansen as an “Israel hater.” Hansen won this title by criticizing the Israeli military’s policy of destroying Palestinian homes. Hansen correctly claimed it violated international humanitarian law. In addition, he called on the UN to investigate the Israel Defense Forces’ bloody 2002 incursion into the Jenin refugee camp (Israel blocked a full-fledged international inquiry from taking place).
In October 2004, Israeli spinners claimed that Hansen helped “terrorists.” To “prove” that Hansen’s UNRWA staff had abetted Palestinian violence, Israeli flaks offered the media grainy footage of Hansen’s staff loading a “rocket into an ambulance.” The “rocket,” however, according to the UN, was a “stretcher.” Days later, Israel admitted it could have been wrong, but did not apologize for threatening Hansen’s and UNRWA’S credibility.
Bush officials made it clear to Annan that they also wanted Hansen replaced by a pro-Israeli. Annan knew that the core of honest UN officials thought highly of Hansen’s commitment to his job and his objectivity.
Hansen recognized the plot. “I was willing to stay,” he told the Guardian (January 20). “There are certain facts about the views of certain groups in the US and Israel about how I have carried out my functions and those groups influenced the decision not to reappoint me”
Hansen referred to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). This standard bearer of the Israeli lobby (four senior AIPAC officials will testify before a grand jury investigating Israeli espionage) has for decades shaped US Middle East policy. It also manipulates, with the consent of the White House, as Hansen well understood, US policies toward the UN. He also saw how the media fell into line. Take this January 21 AIPAC news brief headline: “U.S. Pressure Prompts Removal of U.N. Official Who Employed Terrorists.”
The campaign against Hansen and UNRWA began in earnest in 2002. The World Jewish Congress and AIPAC engaged fanatically pro-Israel Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos. He wrote Annan in May 2002 calling UNRWA “complicit in terrorism.”
Subsequently, the duplicitous plotters encountered the honest Hansen, whose truth telling worked against him. He told a Canadian radio station “that the relief agency employed members of Hamas” (Guardian January 20). Indeed, he explained in response to the selective use of his remark by UNRWA’s critics that “It would have been outright dishonest to say that among a population with about 30% support for Hamas that none of them worked for us.”
Nothing Hansen could have said would have mattered. In early January 2005, 16 Senators and 38 House members wrote to outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell, demanding that the US suspend aid to already cash-strapped UNRWA and use “U.S. leverage in seeking new leadership for UNRWA” (AIPAC Heard on the Hill, January 10).
Ultimately, the orchestrated departure of Hansen shows both the weakness of Kofi Annan and the overwhelming will and strength of the United States and Israel in determining the course of the UN.
This bodes ill for the independence of the world body in Annan’s remaining two years. Underneath the headline events lie a series of incidents that point to Washington’s dangerously inflated role in molding UN policies.
A recent example of such malicious meddling comes from the delayed release of the third installment of the UN Development Program’s (UNDP) Arab Human Development report on freedoms and good governance in Arab countries. Initially expected in October 2004, US officials forced the UN to delay its release because the report criticized the US role in both Iraq and Israel-Palestine. So much for preaching to Arabs about free speech and press!
Nader Fergani, the lead drafter of the report written by an independent group of Arab scholars, policymakers and practitioners, said that the UN Development Program no longer “expected to print the report under its own name due to US threats to cut a chunk of its $US100 million ($130.8 million) funding to the UNDP” (December 23, 2004 Courier-Mail).
A December 22 UNDP press release conceded that “some governments” raised concerns about the report’s contents, but went on to assert that “no Government has asked for their suppression, and press reports that the US has threatened to cut future contributions to UNDP in relation to the upcoming report are inaccurate.”
Inside the UN, officials laughed at the denial. And they shook their heads in resignation over Cairo’s “displeasure” with the report’s references to the “inheritance of power in Egypt.” The truth, as all who follow Egyptian politics know, is that longtime President Hosni Mubarak (1981-) is grooming his son, Jamal, to replace him.
Egypt does not want the UN to describe the limits its regime had placed on political freedom, just as Israel and the United States object to stories of their soldiers torturing prisoners, Palestinians and Iraqis.
The crisis at the UN comes as a result of the super power going beyond “calling the shots” (title of Phyllis Bennis’ 2000 book on how the US dominates the UN). That Annan had the courage to denounce as illegal the Iraq invasion and call for understanding the plight of Palestinians gave hope to people who valued the UN as the only institution that offers guidelines for peace and freedom. Students still learn that the UN Charter engraves human rights and non-intervention as axioms for the common good.
In his 1945 speech to the final plenary session of the UN’s founding conference, Harry Truman issued a warning for those who lusted for power: “We all have to recognize-no matter how great our strength-that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.” It’s time for UN supporters to stop hand wringing and scream the truth. To Bush: “Heed Truman’s wisdom.” To Kofi Annan: “Stand tall as you did on Iraq and Palestine. With courage you can begin to confront moral cowardice and imperial evil.”
Saul Landau teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University, where he is the director of Digital Media Programs and International Outreach, and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also the co-author of “Assassination on Embassy Row,” which is about the Letelier and Moffitt murders. His new book is The Business of America.
Farrah Hassen, a Political Science graduate from Cal Poly Pomona University, was the associate producer of the 2004 documentary, “Syria: Between Iraq & And A Hard Place,” with Saul Landau. She recently spent 2 months working for the United Nations Development Programme in Syria. She can be reached at: FHuisClos1944@aol.com