JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Scarred by his failure to stop Rwanda’s genocide nearly two decades ago, Kofi Annan faces another bloody debacle on his watch as his mediation efforts founder in Syria.
Steeped in a culture of seeking consensus even when it looks unlikely, the soft-spoken former U.N. secretary-general is again at the point where his diplomatic efforts are being overtaken by mass killings rather than being seen as a step to peace.
Although as mediator for the United Nations and the Arab League he has sounded the alarm in Syria with as much moral force as anyone could muster, Annan has failed to get divided world powers or President Bashar al-Assad to stop the bloodshed.
His qualifications as a star statesman who could make mediation work in Syria - if anyone could - were strengthened by his success in halting a spiraling conflict in Kenya four years ago. But Syria is proving a far tougher task.
“He’s driven by the idea of ‘don’t think no’, always looking for the best outcome,” Fred Eckhard, who worked as Annan’s spokesman during his time as secretary-general, told Reuters. “We’ll just see if that’s enough.”
In little over a week since Annan called on Assad to take “bold steps” to make his peace plan work, loyalist forces have been accused of more massacres, opposition strongholds have been shelled and U.N. monitors have been shot at.
With sectarian violence worsening, Annan could do little this week but express concern and demand access for U.N. monitors to investigate killings.
On Tuesday, his spokesman said Annan hoped to convene a meeting of an international contact group on Syria soon, but no venue or list of participants had yet been set.
Asked late last month what had to happen before his peace plan was declared dead, Annan said only the U.N. Security Council could decide.
“When you are dealing with these sorts of issues, it is not a simple issue of drawing up red lines,” he said.
Annan, 74, was shaped by an upbringing in an ethnically divided culture in his native Ghana, but one where dialogue was prized and outright conflict rare. It was a time of optimism and confidence as Ghana headed for independence from Britain.
“He was born and bred in an environment of looking for compromise,” said economist Kwame Pianim, a childhood friend.
That seemed to work after Kenya’s 2007 presidential election, when rival candidates from different tribes claimed victory and some of their followers engaged in ethnic massacres, killing more than 1,200 people.
With the country seeming headed towards the brink of civil war, Annan put the two candidates in a room and announced: “There is only one Kenya”. He helped persuade one of the rivals to accept the post of prime minister in a joint government. The violence ended and his role was praised.
“He is a very skilful negotiator. We came to see that he was offering us the best possible that was available,” said Salim Lone, from the Kenyan opposition camp that had felt cheated of victory. “The alternative was the continuation of mass killings,” said Lone, himself a former U.N. official.
But earlier in his career, Annan’s record was less successful. He was head of U.N. peacekeeping in 1994, when he acknowledges he should have done more to help prevent the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Critics say he chose the route of procedure and diplomacy instead.
“He becomes quite wedded to the processes, but ultimately you don’t serve the processes by following the processes to the point of absurdity,” said David Bosco of American University in Washington.
The greatest reproach was that Annan failed to act on a telegram from the then U.N. peacekeeper commander, General Romeo Dallaire, urging a move against arms caches being built up by Hutu extremists as they prepared mass murder.
“I believed at that time that I was doing my best,” Annan said years later. “But I realized after the genocide that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support.”
In a later book that was scathing about the world’s failure to act, Dallaire had only good things to say of Annan the man - describing him as projecting a rare “humanism and dedication to the plight of others”.
Rwanda was far from the only stain. Annan was at the top of peacekeeping at the time of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, where insufficient U.N. forces again failed to stop the killing, and during a fiasco in Somalia that preceded Rwanda.
Annan’s defenders say he tried to get enough troops and the big power support to make a difference in Bosnia and Rwanda. Critics argue that he was held back by respect for the limits he had learned in decades as a U.N. functionary.
Annan’s later decade as secretary-general was tarnished by allegations of mismanagement of the oil-for-food program for Iraq. Although Annan was cleared of wrongdoing, his son Kojo was found to have used U.N. contacts to his improper advantage.
Even his mediation in Kenya, while mainly seen as a success for helping to halt violence, is not unchallenged. Some believe his compromise papered over a flawed election too elegantly, allowing the possible loser to keep power and failing to do enough to prevent potential future conflict.
“The Kofi Annan peace architecture was sloppy in the extreme,” said Mutahi Ngunyi of The Consulting House thinktank, which gave security advice to negotiators. “His role helped only to the extent that he calmed the temperatures.”
Crucially, in Kenya Annan had the advantages of the backing of regional leaders and of Security Council powers with no particular axe to grind.
Syria is very different: Western countries are pushing for an ending that leads to the departure of Assad. Russia and China still appear ready to veto such steps in the Security Council.
“Without the political backing of governments and the right governments in the right configuration you can’t do anything,” said Eckhard.
Annan, who annoyed the United States by branding the 2003 invasion of Iraq illegal, had the credentials to get a foot in the door in Damascus as more than a Western stooge.
But critics say his determination to keep up the consensus seeking diplomacy is more likely to fuel than quell an increasingly sectarian conflict as Syrian forces step up efforts to crush opponents who are themselves launching more attacks.
“I think he’s fallen victim to the curse of the mediator, that all other options are inferior,” Bosco said.
“He has gone out of his way to attempt to discredit other options and I think that’s a mistake,” Bosco said, while pointing out the lack of apparent appetite for options such as armed intervention.
Last month’s massacre at Houla of 108 people, mostly women and children, showed the advantage of having U.N. observers on the ground to at least bear witness despite Annan’s failed April 12 ceasefire. The U.N. monitors said they suspected army shelling and pro-Assad militia were behind the Houla killings.
But those deaths and the many since then - including nearly 80 people reported massacred in another village - have also demonstrated the impotence of the monitors, who have struggled to even get access to sites of suspected slaughter.
Annan described Houla as a tipping point for the conflict. That could also apply to any chance of negotiating an end to it.
“Does he see a way out? Maybe not. But I don’t think that would have stopped him,” Eckhard said.
Editing by Peter Graff