How France, the UN and Kofi Annan failed in Côte d’Ivoire: an interview with John Bolton

23 07 2007

During his mandate as the American ambassador to the UN (2005-2006), John Bolton has been a privileged witness the diplomatic guerrilla surrounding the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). Over six months after leaving the Security Council for the American Enterprise Institute, where he’s now a Senior Fellow, John Bolton has accepted to discuss what can be described as the failure of the UN, its Secretary General Kofi Annan and France. Behind the French stated goal of promoting multilateralism, what Ambassador Bolton experienced his a mix of neo-colonialism and a constant interference in the internal political affairs of Côte d’Ivoire. The interview sheds a new light on the figure Kofi Annan: behind the veil of a benevolent peacemaker, he appears as one of the key agents of the undue influence France exercized inside the Security Council during the crisis. Few days before the official celebration of the peace agreement that was signed in March 2007, John Bolton considers the Direct negociations between President Laurent Gbabgo and the former rebels as a new evidence of UN’s failures in Africa. As a consequence, he calls for massive reforms at the United Nations. A message that a majority of people in Côte d’Ivoire agree with.

What was your assessment of the situation in Côte d’Ivoire when you arrived at the Security Council?

“I think the situation had been frozen for some time, with the deployment of French and UN peacekeepers, and there was no progress in discussions between the government and the Forces Nouvelles. There were a number of incindents as you said, some in January 2006 where there were efforts by France and others to increase the number of UN peacekeepers in Côte d’Ivoire; but I felt that we were not really paying attention to the fundamental issue, which is how to resolve the differences and bring the country back together again and hopefully find a common ground on the issue of who would be eligible to vote, and having elections, and let Côte d’Ivoire govern itself.”

During the incidents in January 2006, you declared that the UN may be part of the problem in Côte d’Ivoire rather than the solution. What did you mean?

“After a while, in peacekeeping operations with long duration opposing parties actually come to see the UN having a political role in the discussion – sometimes beneficial to their side, sometimes not beneficial to their side. But by helping to perpetuate the division, in a way, the presence of peacekeepers reinforces the division and doesn’t contribute to solving the underlying political problem – which is what the objective of the Security Council ought to be.”

The French draft to Resolution 1721 seems to have elicited a rather heated debate, and disagreements have appeared between members of the Security Council, specifically between France and the United States. What was the substance of the debate?

“In many respect, I think France and the Europeans generally were operating as if Côte d’Ivoire was still a colony. They were administrating its affairs, they were deciding who would be in charge, they were really micro-managing internal political affairs in Côte d’Ivoire. And, once again, I don’t think that, over the long term, this contributes to the solution that the parties themselves would have to come to. So, rather than trying to advance the interest of one side or the other, I think the role of the Security Council should be to resolve the dispute; and, in this case, the particular disagreement was over a decision made by the African Union in terms of the extension of the President’s term and what the authority of the Prime Minister would be. And France and Ghana and the Republic of Congo favored a Security Council resolution that was clearly different from what the AU had agreed on. And normally, when the AU agrees on something, they come to the Security Council and say “You simply have to adopt this”. This is a clear difference from what we have done before, which may have been a bad thing to do. I don’t think the African Union is always right. But let’s be clear: this is a departure from practice. And I think Tanzania agreed with that, South Africa – which was not on the Council, but which was coming on in January – agreed with that and I think other members of the Council agreed with that as well.”

China too…

“And China and Russia. So, what we wanted was not that constant interference in internal Côte d’Ivoire affairs. I don’t know if China and Russia wanted that too, but what we wanted was to say: “The Security Council’s role should be to facilitate a resolution of the underlying problem, and what we’re doing is re-allocating authority, really, on one side of the problem. That has nothing to do with Forces Nouvelles, with the people controlling the North.” It was all about who was controlling the South. And I just didn’t think it was approprate for the Security Council.”

Kofi Annan’s mandate as Secretary General of the United Nations came to an end at around the same time you left the Security Council. What’s your personal assessment of Kofi Annan’s management of the situation in Côte d’Ivoire until December 2006?

“I think he very clearly took the position of the French. One of the assistants of the Secretary General came the Council to say: “We should support the French draft.” And I asked Kofi Annan’s assistant secretary: “Is it the position of the Secretary General that only the French draft is acceptable?” And there was a long silence, because they don’t normally get challenged on things like that. I said: “This is a debate we ought to have, that’s why I raised the issue.”

Years before being appointed as the US Ambassador to the Un, you were already very vocal about the organization being obsolete. How has your position evolved after serving at the Security Council in 2005 and 2006?

“I think I just confirmed that point of view. This organization needs massive reform.”

What kind of reform?

“I think it needs organizational change, change in the way it makes decisions, change in the ways it is financed, and I think the failure of many UN peacekeeping operations in Africa is a proof of that. The organization is not doing what it could do to help the cause and resolve the disputes. In many cases, it simply prolongs. (…) I think over the years, the Security Council has delegated too much authority to the Secretary General, and it is not taking an active enough role, and I think the fact is that the five permanent members on the Council as a whole ought to be more active in trying to resolve peacekeeping disputes all around the world, and not just in Africa. So, there has to be more active involvement by the Security Council itself.”

The peace agreement signed in March 2007 between the President of Côte d’Ivoire and the Forces Nouvelles seems to be holding. Are you informed of this peace deal and what do such direct negociations between both parties mean for the UN?

“Of course, we don’t know whether this agreement will work, because earlier agreements have failed as well. But I was very struck when I read about the agreement in the media. It had apparently come because of direct negociations between the President and the leadership of the Forces Nouvelles. And to me, that shows that the UN had not been fulfilling its role and really, as with the resolution of most disputes, when the parties aren’t prepared to make a deal, they won’t make a deal. And I certainly hope this arrangement succeeds for the good of all the people in the country, that it ends the division and that it gets on with economic development. But it would certainly show the UN has failed in its role, because it didn’t really have an active role in making this agreement pass.”

How do you analyze the role of the media in an international crisis like the one in Côte d’Ivoire?

“I think it’s important to allow freedom of the press generally in many occasions it may seem as if it has a negative role, but over time the role is positive and you need to get different perspectives so you get a complete story. So I think telling, for example, what was happening in Côte d’Ivoire where there were different media voices, all these reports were very helpful for those of us who were sitting in New York.”

Background check: Head to head: Good peacekeeping? A debate between John Bolton and Jean-Marie Guehenno (head of UN peacekeeping operations).


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