Kofi's Rule

Kofi's Rule

Mini Teaser: Kofi Annan has promulgated a new rule for the conduct of international affairs. But there were difficulties in applying it, in the case if the weak as well as the strong.

by Author(s): Edward Luttwak

Kofi Annan was once a solid bureaucrat who could count on the loyalty of a so-called "African Mafia" among UN officials. He systematically promoted the career interests of the many Africans who found refuge in well-paid UN jobs from the chaotic, often violent politics of their home countries, and did nothing to energize the rare investigations of theft and corruption in the UN's notoriously leaky emergency relief programs for Africa (in which non-African UN officials were also involved). Even the worst offenders, who sold off food supplies meant for starving refugees, suffered no greater punishment than early retirement--with generous pensions. In return, Kofi Annan could count on the full support and admiration of the UN's African officials; and as he rose in the organization's ranks, he did so with the backing of the representatives of almost all African states.

Personable, bright and energetic, since his elevation as secretary-general he has become increasingly popular the world over. In the future, Annan may find even more admirers, but African governments are unlikely to remain among them. For in his new guise, no longer the smooth bureaucrat but rather the world statesman, Kofi Annan has just promulgated a new rule for the conduct of international affairs, one which in the long run is incompatible with the continued independence of most African states.

Echoing Clinton's justification for bombing Serbia and a phrase made famous by his predecessor, George Bush, in opening the new session of the UN General Assembly Annan declared that the world would no longer allow the sovereignty of member states to shield them from the consequences of outrageous misconduct: "Massive violations of human rights will not stand." After Kosovo and East Timor, it was clear what this meant.

While deploring the failure of NATO to seek Security Council authorization before bombing Serbia-Montenegro, Kofi Annan clearly endorsed the violation of its sovereignty in the name of the political rights of Kosovo's Albanians. And, of course, the UN officially accepted the outcome of the war by establishing the protectorate that is now ruling Kosovo under a plenipotentiary UN official. True, the UN still recognizes Serbia-Montenegro's sovereignty over that territory, but then NATO did too, before, during and after its bombing campaign. That, however, is a very peculiar sovereignty to say the least, because it excludes both Belgrade's administration and the presence of any of its troops from nominally Serbian territory. As for East Timor, yesterday it was still part of Indonesia; today it too has become a UN protectorate, pending the creation of an independent state and government.

Possible Candidates

What will be the next Kosovo or East Timor? Or, rather, if both represented "massive violations of human rights"--Kofi Annan's announced standard for intervention--what other countries should now, by the same standard, be forced to surrender territories and populations to UN protectorates? There are some obvious candidates: Saddam Hussein's regime can no longer massacre Kurds, but is still oppressing the country's Shiite majority, and indeed Iraqis of all backgrounds, with habitual brutality. There is no doubt that the government of Slobodan Milosevic was harsh in Kosovo, as was the Indonesian army in East Timor, but if both warranted international intervention, why not the far worse plight of the Iraqis, who easily outnumber the combined populations of both?

Another obvious candidate is Afghanistan, where the Taliban, who control most of the country, are systematically depriving the female half of the population of its rights--not just the right to vote but even the right to go shopping. And then there is North Korea, where oppression is both constant and invisible, but where systematic government policy--notably the upkeep of vast armed forces and costly weapons projects--is starving the population. If it was so important to assure the political rights of Kosovo's Albanians, or the right of the East Timorese to an independent state, it should surely be even more urgent to assure the physical right of North Koreans to eat enough to survive.

And so it goes on, wherever the usual pattern of ordinary political repression is broken by outrageous government misconduct. Of course, if it is the sheer magnitude of human rights violations that counts, China should be put at the top of the list. Milosevic, try as he might, could only deprive some two million Albanians of their political rights, while the Indonesians had even fewer East Timorese to oppress. The Chinese government, by contrast, deprives two entire nationalities of their self-expression--the Tibetans and the Uighurs of Xinjiang (they alone are far more numerous than all the Albanians in Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania combined)--while denying freedom of religion both to millions of Catholics and to Falun Gong members, who again outnumber the entire population of most UN member states.

One can add to this list quite a few other candidates for intervention, because in the belt of non-democratic states that runs across North Africa and the Middle East from Morocco to Pakistan, the habitual denial of political rights is often compounded by even harsher human rights violations. In Saudi Arabia, which is one of the rare countries that has never conducted an election, not even a fake one, the denial of political rights is absolute, while citizens can still be imprisoned at the say so of any one of hundreds of princes. In Iran, by contrast, there are elections, if strictly limited to "approved" candidates. But its semi-democracy coexists with outbursts of murderous religious persecution. Presently, thirteen Jews accused of espionage in a provincial town, one of them an elderly rabbi and another a boy under sixteen, face the death penalty. On a much larger scale, there are still periodic manhunts for Bahais--who face the death penalty as descendants of converts from Islam--and in recent years, Assyrians, Armenians, even Zoroastrians have been cruelly persecuted.

When Rules Collide

It is obvious, therefore, that the choice of Kosovo and East Timor was more than a little arbitrary. Yet it is pointless to denounce the inconsistency. That no one is preparing to bomb China, invade North Korea, advance to Baghdad, occupy Afghanistan, or impose democracy on Middle Eastern governments cannot be a decisive objection to Kofi Annan's new rule for the conduct of world affairs. If a principle is sound, it remains sound even if it cannot be applied immediately and everywhere.

The old rule, after all--that every internationally recognized state is the absolute sovereign of its own territory and everything in it, people very much included--left the world without any recourse in the face of the Khmer Rouge auto-genocide and assorted massacres both before and since, not to speak of routine political oppression by party or personal dictatorships. True, the old rule did allow the possibility of some sort of world order--if only by making the world safe for tyrants, who could do whatever they pleased to their own subjects so long as they did not violate the sovereignty of another state.

That, in effect, was the "New World Order" promoted by George Bush, which was universally embraced precisely because it was not new at all. His proposal that armed coalitions authorized by the UN Security Council should guarantee the sovereignty of all UN member states was in fact the strongest possible reassertion of the established order--with not a word said about human rights.

While the Russian, Chinese and even the French governments jealously resented the prominence of the United States in leading the 1991 Gulf War coalition, they could not seriously object to the principle involved. Their own interests, in any case, would be well safeguarded, because in the Bush version of collective security nothing could be done without a positive authorization by the UN Security Council, in which they maintain a veto. Moreover, the leaders of weak states around the world, both democratic and dictatorial, greatly welcomed the New World Order's guarantee of their sovereign power, and would hardly have welcomed Russian, Chinese or French opposition.

It was a quite different force that demolished George Bush's New World Order: public opinion, and its refusal to tolerate visible atrocities. Immediately after the Gulf War ended, a victorious Bush proclaimed that he had no intention of dismembering Iraq or imposing democracy on Kuwait. This was his attempt to inaugurate an era of "cold-blooded geopolitics." He would not intervene to help the Kurds once again suffering massacre: first, that would be a violation of Iraqi sovereignty; and second, Bush was waiting impatiently for the Iraqi general who would overthrow Saddam Hussein, and he wanted a strong Iraq for him to rule, with all its territory intact. He would not ask the Emir of Kuwait to allow elections--the war had been fought to restore Kuwait's sovereignty and Bush would not violate it by interfering with its governance.

As it turned out, this era of cold-blooded geopolitics lasted roughly two weeks. Confronted by the televised images of starving Kurds trekking across snowy mountains with their women and children to flee Iraqi reprisals, the American public demanded action. After resisting briefly, Bush gave in. The outcome was "Operation Provide Comfort", which carved out a Kurdish security zone from Iraq's territory. Thus already in 1991, long before the Clinton administration formally repudiated the New World Order to attack the sovereign state of Serbia-Montenegro, George Bush had himself abrogated its substance, violating Iraq's sovereignty for the sake of the Kurds. He had no choice: the U.S. electorate, along with what passes for world opinion, simply did not accept the traditional view that sovereignty always outranks human rights whenever the two collide.

That is why Kofi Annan need not be troubled by the practical obstacles that prevent any consistent application of his new rule. The selection of a Kosovo or an East Timor may be quite arbitrary, and to bomb Belgrade rather than North Korea's Pyongyang, or for that matter Beijing, may be unfair. But for all its shortcomings, the new rule--whereby human rights outrank sovereignty--must still prevail, because the old rule is simply dead. No democratic government can openly endorse it any longer.

The Problem of "Easy" Cases

Kofi Annan's real problem is not with the hard cases like China, but rather with the many places where his new rule could be applied all too easily: weak states in which "massive" human rights violations are a persistent reality--and which lack the nuclear weapons of China, or the large armed forces of North Korea and Iraq, or even the inaccessibility of vast, landlocked Afghanistan. Those candidates for armed UN interventions, followed by UN protectorates of indefinite duration, are mostly in sub-Saharan Africa as it happens, and they are not just a few countries either.

Sierra Leone, long ravaged by a bandit army of robbers, rapists and torturers, is an all too obvious example. Actually, its extreme atrocities--the mutilation of men, women and children, now condemned to live without hands or feet in the poorest of countries--misleadingly obscure a much broader reality. That the people of Sierra Leone deserve the security of a UN protectorate sine die even more than those of Kosovo or East Timor is perfectly evident. But even in states that are not ruled by cruel robber-dictators as Sierra Leone and Liberia are, or that are not ravaged by chaotic civil wars like the Congo ex-Zaire, the "massive" violations of human rights that Kofi Annan says "will not stand" are simply part of normal, unreported, unremarkable everyday life.

Naturally, this too is an evil legacy of Africa's colonial past. For the standard accusation--that European colonialists came to rob under the sign of the cross; that they smashed traditional societies, grabbed what they could, and then left abruptly for their own selfish reasons, dressed up in the self-serving verbiage of decolonization--is perfectly true, but only part of the truth.

For the greatest crime of colonialism came at the very end, when the Europeans left without taking their colonial armies, police forces and tax-collecting bureaucracies with them. Those synthetic tribes were left behind with weapons and civil powers that allowed them to oppress and exploit all the natural tribes; having grown hugely since independence, their oppression and exploitation has grown in proportion. Inherently parasitic, they consume such a large proportion of scant agricultural surpluses, of the fluctuating foreign exchange earnings of commodity exports (whose volume has declined overall), and of any and all foreign aid still fecklessly pressed into their hands, that mere crumbs remain for educational expenditures and for investments in infrastructures. In fact, not enough has been spent in most countries even to maintain the meager inheritance of colonial infrastructures.

In exchange for all they consume, the neocolonial ruling class of soldiers, policemen, tax collectors, administrators and politicians provides an habitual misgovernment of malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance. All over sub-Saharan Africa, including countries with democratically elected rulers, the unavoidable encounters with the ubiquitous roadblocks operated by habitually drunken or drugged soldiers or policemen are occasions for routine extortion, as well as all too frequent beatings and even rape. In many regions of many countries, truck drivers and the tiny minority of non-official car drivers know that in addition to fuel money, roadblock money is also necessary to go from A to B, while in some countries younger women must simply reckon that a journey is likely to result in rape if a roadblock is encountered.

The outward trappings of soldiers and policemen--their uniforms and perhaps some drills--faithfully retain colonial models, but the very concept of military or police service for the state and its citizens is entirely alien. Soldiers and policemen treat their weapons not as tools of state power, entrusted to their care under rigid rules of use and pursuant to specific orders, but as personal entitlements to extract whatever they can from unarmed civilians. Often, with extreme poverty so common, all that they can obtain is the spectacle of humiliated, trembling victims, threatened with death at the point of a gun just to show off or merely to pass the time. Such scenes are common even in the largest cities, even where military rule has given way to elected governments.

All over sub-Saharan Africa, taxes, dues, export levies and monopoly imposts are ruthlessly extracted from malnourished and sickly populations to pay for the extravagance of rulers (even elected ones), of their sprawling, acquisitive families, of top officials and top cronies. Children must die for the lack of ten-cent vaccinations so that champagne may be imported by the plane load for presidential dinners, so that ministers and generals, and their wives, and mistresses, and brothers and cousins may travel in shiny new Mercedes cars. It was not the famous billionaire dictator-thief Mobutu Sese Seko who bought a long-range passenger jet for his young wife's shopping trips to London, but Zimbabwe's elected President Robert Mugabe--and he did so in the midst of the country's worst economic crisis since independence, when rescue talks with the IMF were imminent. Nor was it some outrageous Idi Amin or Emperor Jean-BŽdel Bokassa who spent more than a billion dollars to build the world's biggest church in his native village (its cupola dwarfs that of St. Peter's), but rather the learned Felix Houphou't-Boigny, the then much-respected president of one of Africa's soundest and most livable countries, the Ivory Coast. A political class that is on the whole neither conservative nor radical, but rather relentlessly kleptocratic, extracts and diverts more wealth from Africa than European colonialists ever did.

All over Africa, civil servants do not serve, government doctors provide no patient care, customs officers levy personal bribes rather than tariffs, inspectors do not inspect, judges sell their verdicts to the highest bidder, and state education officials and professors award degrees and diplomas for hard cash rather than term papers or exam results. No blood need be spilled--though it often is--but outrageous misgovernment is pervasive nonetheless, with the ultimate result that millions die needlessly each year from easily preventable diseases, and the vast majority of the productive population is kept in extreme poverty.

The human rights thus violated are much more elemental than political or national rights, and should enjoy a correspondingly higher priority. Only racism can explain, and nothing can justify, elevating the right of Kosovo's Albanians to their own government, or the right of the East Timorese to their own state, above the existential human rights of Kofi Annan's fellow Africans.

This, then, is the ultimate problem--not the obvious cases like Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Congo ex-Zaire, where only outside interventions could bring an end to years of atrocious suffering, but rather that the entire governance of so many sub-Saharan African states amounts to a "massive" violation of human rights. Multilateral interventions under the authority of the UN, Kofi Annan's own proposal, are plainly the only possible remedy.

There are of course some practical difficulties. First, no sub-Saharan interventions can be accomplished by today's favored "post-heroic" means, the remote bombardment of high-contrast targets with cruise missiles or with ordnance launched from a suitably safe remove. The Kosovo intervention was executed by NATO pilots who flew in greater safety than the passengers of some Third World airlines, but in sub-Saharan Africa the infantry will have to go in to disarm the war bands both of failed governments and of their opponents. No serious combat or significant numbers of casualties are to be expected, for local soldiers and rebels alike are only capable of terrorizing civilians, not fighting trained soldiers. But ground forces would still be needed, there would be some fighting, and cruise missiles or laser-guided bombs would not do the trick. For post-heroic armed forces, a reversion to actual combat, even on the smallest scale, might not be easy.

Second, UN interventions in sub-Saharan Africa to disarm all comers and establish law and order cannot be mere raids or visitations ˆ la Somalia, where utter anarchy was followed by more of the same after the UN withdrawal. They must instead lead to the establishment of UN protectorates that can build infrastructures, provide education, and administer all the necessary functions of civil government. Of necessity the duration of these protectorates is more likely to be measured in decades rather than years. Thus, if Kofi Annan's call is heard, very few African states would retain their independence. And that is no small matter.

Essay Types: Essay