On Our Watch

Kieran Prendergast


Sir Kieran Prendergast, a former British diplomat, served as Secretary-General Kofi Annan's top political adviser at the United Nations from March 1997 to June 2005. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted June 29, 2007.

When did you first hear of Darfur, and what was happening there?

The first time I became particularly aware of Darfur was when I visited Khartoum as part of a tour of East Africa toward the end of 2003. When I met the U.N. country team in Khartoum they told me that there was a growing problem of humanitarian access, and they asked me whether I would raise the issue with the president, which I did, and with the foreign minister, which I also did.

But at that time it appeared to be more a question of obstructing humanitarian access than the kind of humanitarian and political disaster that it turned into later.

And when did you first get a sense that it was turning into something different, something more serious?

I wouldn't want to be pinned down on dates, because one of the problems of the job that I had was that you are a bit like a fireman; you're bombarded with calls saying, "Come put this fire out; come and put that fire out." And at the time, you may remember, we had a very large fire in Iraq, and we also had other fires in Afghanistan, and we had a major problem of trying to conclude the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the South of Sudan and the Sudanese government.

But I would guess that it would be in the very early months of 2004, and then we became aware of the death rate -- and the death rate was mainly from drought and lack of water and from waterborne diseases and so on -- and of the likelihood that this was going to mount whatever happened because of the dynamics of the situation and the difficulty of getting relief supplies in quickly enough.

We also had a growing debate about the balance between Darfur and the business of concluding the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the Naivasha talks. I took advice from those who understood the situation there better than I did, and the argument was always that if you could conclude the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, then that would provide a model which would enable you to settle the political side of the Darfur problem … because the Comprehensive Peace Agreement would provide a sort of model laying out the possibility of wide-ranging autonomy for the various unsettled areas of Sudan. …

... Do you think it should have been bumped up to a political level sooner?

I don't accept that I or my department were tardy in that respect. I have never been shy about speaking my mind on difficult issues and bringing difficult issues up to the top. ...

The early awareness of the crisis was among the humanitarians as a primarily humanitarian crisis. I think that if the humanitarians had felt as strongly, as they appear to now, that this was a political crisis requiring political action, they would actually have taken some form of bureaucratic action to act on that. And I would defy anyone to produce any evidence that such action was ever blocked either by me or my department. It would be completely against my method of operating, which was always to have free discussion of these things.

Now, that said, I did take the view -- and I still take the view -- that it would have been really wrong to derail the Naivasha process, because it is the Naivasha process leading to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that laid down the model for solving issues such as Darfur. ...

The criticism is that the U.N. is too keen to provide blankets and aid and deal with it as a humanitarian crisis rather than see it for what it was, which was an oncoming political crisis.

Yes, but where did the knowledge lie? The knowledge lay among the blankets. I mean, I have a political department in which there is one desk officer who deals with Sudan. I had nobody on the ground in Sudan. The people who were on the ground in Sudan were the humanitarians. And that's why I ask the question again, if they felt that it was an urgent political issue at that time, why did they not raise it in the Cabinet or in the Executive Committee on Peace and Security or in the Executive Committee on Humanitarian Affairs? ...

Kofi Annan [secretary-general of the United Nations, 1997-2006], in April 2004, spoke about the need for possible military intervention to halt what he all but called a genocide. He certainly called them crimes against humanity. By June 2004 he seems to have backed off that position, despite being briefed by [then-U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan Mukesh] Kapila and [U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan] Egeland at that point. Can you shed any light on what was happening? ...

I think when you're dealing with issues which are always complex, they're very easy to present in the media or for NGOs to present as extremely black-and-white, very clear-cut. They tend on the ground to be pretty complex.

I would say that the first requirement is to try to understand the nature of the issue. The second requirement is to try to work out whether you or the international community are in a position to solve it or whether you're treating it as best you can for the moment or whether it's something you're going to have to live with. And the third requirement is to ask yourself what are the realistic policy options for dealing with something.

I was opposed to the reference to the possible use of armed force because it seemed to me that less than a year after the war in Iraq, there was zero possibility of effective military intervention in Darfur, zero possibility. And, I may say, so has it turned out.

If you advocate the possibility of armed action when there is no possibility of armed action, you are likely to have the effect of radicalizing the people who think that the U.S. cavalry or the British cavalry or whatever are going to come galloping over the horizon to smite their enemies. You actually have the effect of hardening their position and making it easier for them to behave in an unreasonable way. So I think that a great disservice was done by whoever persuaded the secretary-general to make reference to the possibility of military action.

I also happen to think that although the regime in Khartoum is an unpleasant and very difficult regime which has consistently, over the last 20 or 30 years, used techniques as in Darfur -- namely, has used local elements in order to suppress opposition -- nevertheless, there was a serious failure of diplomacy in relation to Darfur. People were constantly talking in public about what the Sudanese government were going to accept or going to be required to accept without anyone actually speaking to the Sudanese government about it and seeking to persuade them. ...

I think that in a situation where you are not actually able to force your views on the Sudanese government, there should have been a greater effort to persuade them and to push them. I mean, I played some small part in persuading them to accept a peacekeeping operation in order to implement the North-South agreement. I don't think there was during those critical days a corresponding effort to persuade the Sudanese government with the threat of sanctions, with the threat of unilateral measures or whatever, to accept measures that would have been helpful in containing the problem.

I also happen to think that Jan Egeland was mistaken in insisting in his first briefing of the Security Council to which you refer, in referring to "ethnic cleansing." I advised him not to use that term. And why? Not because I and the political department were afraid to call a spade a spade, but because once you use very emotive terms of that kind, you change the nature of the debate.

As I expected, the debate immediately became about Jan Egeland and whether the term was justified and whether Jan Egeland could be allowed by the Sudanese to enter their territory again, whereas what I would have preferred would have been to concentrate on what actions we wanted the Sudanese government to take and what actions we wanted the Sudanese government to stop. ...

These are genuine differences of view, and I'm not belittling the sincerity of Jan's views. They certainly had an effect in energizing the NGO community, but I think they actually made the business of dealing with Darfur in an effective way more difficult and not less difficult. And I think that subsequent events have borne that out.

We have been wholly ineffective in dealing with the issue of Darfur. Maybe we would have been wholly ineffective anyway, but I think we more or less guaranteed, by the absence of diplomacy and by the use of very emotive terms, we almost guaranteed failure.

What did you think when Mukesh Kapila went public in 2004?

... My criticism of Mukesh was that he waited until about I think less than a month before he left Khartoum in order to express his feelings on the issue. He didn't use those terms when I saw him in, I think it was November 2003, by no means. ...

He claims he was writing memos to Jan Egeland and others throughout this period. That's what he claims.

Sure. But again, I've got no idea of what memos he was writing to Jan Egeland because I didn't receive them.

[Editor's Note: After this interview was conducted, FRONTLINE's producers discovered two memos from December 2003 and March 2004, both written by Kapila and addressed to Prendergast, among others. Prendergast did not respond to additional inquiries from FRONTLINE about these documents.]

But what I'm saying is that Jan was never reluctant to put issues on the agenda of what are the equivalent of Cabinet or Cabinet committees. But to the best of my recollection there was never a discussion at either level of what was going [on] in such apocalyptic terms, about what was going on in Darfur.

It did seem, you see, at first to be primarily a humanitarian issue. I remember Jan taking us through the mortality rates in the camps, which were truly horrifying, and also telling us that whatever we did, because of the nature of the terrain, the difficulty of access with rain and mud and so on, there were going to continue to be a very large number of deaths.

I want to raise one other matter, if I might, in relation to the business of managing the Sudanese government, who are difficult enough to manage, and that is the perception in Khartoum that there were senior U.S. officials, especially in USAID [United States Agency for International Development], whose agenda was regime change in Khartoum and who were in the business of using the political problems in Darfur as a lever to try to bring about that regime change.

Of course you'll understand that if you think that senior officials in the world's only superpower are actually using an issue to try to bring about a coup against you and regime change in Khartoum, that does not make you more reasonable or more amenable to deal with.

When Colin Powell comes out and calls it genocide, what went through your mind then?

I thought this was making it more difficult. I think Colin Powell's hand was more or less forced by the resolution in the U.S. Congress, which made that finding on the basis of what? How many of those who voted for it had actually made any examination of the issue? We sent a team to Darfur, as you know, which found otherwise. But in any case, my view is that's the sort of thing which is best left to the judgment of history, unless you have the special adviser on the question of genocide go there and make a finding that it is happening.

I'm interested to hear you talk about all this, because the sense I get is that the truth is you couldn't stop it even if you wanted to in Darfur. Is that essentially your position? I mean, you can't threaten military force because you don't have military force.

I thought it was quite difficult to come to a very clear and full understanding of what you were dealing with. How much of it was a humanitarian tragedy which was due to the particular climatic conditions, complicated, exacerbated by obstructiveness by the government? How much of it was Janjaweed? I think there was very little doubt there's a certain amount of provocation by the SLA [Sudan Liberation Army] making deliberate attacks on the Sudanese army. There were rumors at the time that they had been advised to do this because this would force foreign intervention, which of course did not happen.

So I think we were always behind the game, and once we had collectively alienated the Sudanese government to the point where their own sense of sovereignty, their own internal dynamics -- I don't know how much effort people made in trying to understand the relative vulnerability of [President Omar al-]Bashir in the regime. There were other strands in the thinking of the Sudanese establishment who might have been willing to have a coup against him. There was [Hassan al-]Turabi, an arch-Islamist and radical, who was in alliance with the SLA, with the rebels in Darfur. It was a very complicated situation.

I don't think by the time we got to understand how serious was the ongoing loss of life that we could have stopped that in a hurry. ...

And doesn't this speak to the problem? How are we to stop these? Do you look back on Darfur and accept that there are crimes against humanity that are being perpetrated?

Yeah, certainly, definitely. What the ICC [International Criminal Court] has so found. I really do not want to be put in the position of appearing to be an apologist for the regime in Khartoum, because I'm not.

Nevertheless, I think you have to look at issues with a certain rigor, and you have not to blink if you conclude that the policy instruments are limited, and you have to try and use those instruments to the best, and you have not to mislead people by holding out the possibility of other action which is not going to happen.

And by the way, this conversation is very slightly bizarre in that it takes place as if the United Nations was the United Nations Secretariat and there was no Security Council, there was no U.S. Embassy, there was no British Embassy, there was no Canadian Embassy with a much bigger presence on the ground. ...

I don't recall any request in the Security Council for a briefing on Darfur. I don't recall the Canadian government or the U.S. government or the British government making strong statements about Darfur until the issue exploded on the world the way it exploded on us. ...

Why is this focus on the weak little U.N. Secretariat, underfunded, underresourced, undermanned and without technical means that the world's great powers have, actually to have real-time knowledge about what's happening on the ground?

It would appear, based on every humanitarian crisis or crimes against humanity that we've witnessed in this century, that the major powers will only intervene when it's in their interest to do so. Would you accept that?

Yes, I think their propensity to intervene increases exponentially geographically depending on how close the crisis is to their own heartland.

But in this particular one we had another problem, which was that the African Union saw this as an opportunity to step forward, to play the true role. But they didn't have the means; they didn't have those elements that make for an effective force -- which are command and control, communications, transport, logistics, fixed-wing aircraft, rotary aircraft -- in an area the size of France.

They weren't able to do it. We knew that they wouldn't be able to do it, but they wouldn't step aside. So in a way, a very laudable attempt to accept their responsibility to bring African solutions to African problems actually made it more difficult for us to deal with. And that's a great pity, but it was a persistent factor.

And even when the secretary-general authorized the peacekeeping department to provide experts to them in Addis Ababa, they didn't really want to take advantage of that expertise, because they were afraid that this was a kind of Trojan horse which was leading toward a takeover by the U.N. of the operation. ...

Darfur has now happened. The next humanitarian crisis or ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity that happens in the world, are we any further forward on how we respond to it?

I don't think we should leave Darfur just yet, because I'm quite disturbed with the present situation. In April I went to an African mediators' retreat in Zanzibar, and we had two sessions. I chaired the session on Darfur. ...

It was very, very evident that nothing was being done to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, because the pressures of Darfur and the business of a hybrid peacekeeping operation had sucked all of the oxygen out of the air, had taken up all of the available attention.

Now, I think this is very serious, because, as I mentioned to you earlier, you cannot solve Darfur unless you implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. We had the mediators from the African Union and the United Nations there, and it was quite clear that they were seriously underfunded, seriously understaffed and working part-time with not a huge degree of energy or impetus on this issue.

So when I chaired the session on Darfur, I asked, can someone please tell me what is our united policy on Sudan? ... How can it be that we have allowed implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the North-South peace agreement to wither on the vine, which increases the risk of a secession by the South in a few years' time and therefore really quite possibly a drift back to conflict? ...

Whose fault is it that we're in this stasis?

You've got to ask the international community what you're doing. You've got to ask the United Nations a bit. When I was in Zanzibar, it was more than six months since Jan Pronk had resigned as head of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Sudan. I'm not even sure if we've got a replacement for him now in the second last day of June. There is apparently to be a joint U.N.-African Union envoy, who is I believe the foreign minister of Congo-Brazzaville [Republic of Congo], who speaks neither English nor Arabic and who is going to have some considerable difficulty in functioning effectively and who may have been chosen on the sort of African basis of rotation.

So the question I keep coming back to: What are the realistic options? Have we ever gone for the realistic options? Have we ever tried to implement the realistic options seriously?

And what are they, in your opinion?

I think there's the possibility of bringing maximum diplomatic pressure to bear on the Sudanese. I think you've got to work on the Chinese very hard on that. The Chinese position traditionally has been rather mercantilist, and they have built up a certain degree of credit with African governments by saying that they don't make political demands. At the same time, China is increasingly aware that she's a great power and she has great power aspirations and that this is not entirely compatible with hobnobbing with disreputable regimes.

Generally, if you look at the policy options that are open, there are three main ones. One is diplomacy and dialogue. And I'm not talking about drinking gin and tonics together, apart from the fact that there is no alcohol in Khartoum. I mean having a critical engagement, a serious, pressing, sustained dialogue where you push the arguments with the government.

Another one is sanctions, and there the Sudanese are to some degree protected by the Chinese. But as we see in relation to Iran, there are sanctions which are possible outside the realm of the United Nations.

And the third is the use of force. And if the use of force is not going to happen, it's absolutely no use dangling that there as if it is, because, as I say, the trouble is that it hardens the position. The drift of time has made things worse.

We did discuss Darfur at the meeting I've just come from, and there was a lot of concern expressed about what was called the Somalization of Darfur, you know, where you get a situation where the opposition starts to fragment and it's terribly difficult. It's much easier to deal with an issue when you're talking to one organization or two organizations. You're talking to 20 organizations, each of which has got a constituency to satisfy, some of which may have a lot of support, some of which may have none. It's incredibly more difficult to reach any sort of agreement.

But from the point of view of the question you asked me sometime ago, the answer is that generally we don't mean it. We don't mean it when we say that we're not going to accept other Rwandas, further Rwandas. But I never thought we did mean it. It's a very sad conclusion, but I don't think there's any evidence to sustain the view that we did mean it. We may have meant it at a level of generalized indignation, but when it comes to accepting the consequences of that, we don't.

One of the issues that was really underlying the high-level panel was the question of whether you could bind the United States more firmly back into a system of collective security. I really was responsible for starting the panel and supporting the panel and providing them with sort of intellectual roughage. Part of that was a question of whether one could design a new "grand bargain," the idea [being] that the components of the grand bargain were that the United States might be asked when there was an issue that it felt might possibly require the use of force to commit itself to coming first to the Security Council and giving the Security Council the opportunity to deal effectively with it. That will be one of the elements of the grand bargain.

The other element would have to be that the Security Council, including the Third World members, would have to accept that if we were to bind the United States into the system of collective security and international rule of law, then they would have to be willing to support a more intrusive role by the Security Council at a much earlier stage in the development of the crisis than they were used to.

You know that most of the Third World regard noninterference and internal affairs as holy writ. Partly that's because they think, "Who next?," and partly it's because the actions of NATO in Kosovo and the coalition in Iraq have agitated them in that respect and made them feel that the question of who next is a live and vivid one, where they either hang together or they'll be hanged separately.

Unfortunately, nobody really took the idea of this grand bargain very seriously. I think that in Washington with the current administration there was a view by the likes of [former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations] John Bolton and so on that these were the Lilliputians wanting to tie down Gulliver and that Gulliver didn't want to be tied down. On the other side I don't think they took the issue seriously enough, and they didn't see the prize of binding the United States back into a system of collective security as being a realistic objective.

But I think that until, one, you get a bargain of that kind so that the Security Council does get used to having a more intrusive policy, ... and secondly, that it may require the Western powers, the people with the capacity, to use that capacity in rather dangerous and uncertain circumstances, you are going to continue to encounter from time to time situations like Rwanda and Darfur.

Is one of the problems that the U.N. doesn't have a standing force?

I think the trouble is no, they don't have a standing force. There's a serious problem of overstretch at the United Nations. There's something like 165,000 troops deployed in various peacekeeping operations around the world. The trouble is also that the Western countries are very reluctant to deploy their best troops in difficult and dangerous circumstances. ...

The Canadians took a very good initiative in relation to humanitarian intervention in coming up with the concept of the Responsibility to Protect. But the Third World members are not stupid, and they could see that Responsibility to Protect was simply flipping the coin over from humanitarian intervention, and they remain very nervous about it. ...

So, for the moment, where is Responsibility to Protect? Do you think the international community is willing to really put some force behind the concept?

I was instrumental in drafting the secretary-general's great speech on responsibility on humanitarian intervention in September '99, which was in a way a response to Kosovo, to try and square this circle of the imperative of intervention or the Responsibility to Protect with the obligations of international law. And they're very difficult to square.

I was struck that within an hour or a couple of hours of the secretary-general's speech, which I personally think is one of the very best that he made in his entire 10 years in office, the president of Algeria, for example, had made a scathing response, presenting it ... as something which was imposed by the rich on the poor, by the strong on the weak. And at a reception the same evening given for him by the president of the General Assembly, who happened to be the foreign minister of Namibia, the foreign minister in his welcoming remarks rejected the very existence of a concept of humanitarian intervention.

Then I went to a summit of the Group of 77, [a U.N. organization of developing nations,] in Havana, and they put out a communiqué which stated very clearly that they, too, rejected that very concept. And the nonaligned foreign ministers had a meeting where they rejected the concept of humanitarian intervention.

So it's a very neuralgic concept for the Third World. I think the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations at the time, Allan Rock, did a brilliant humanitarian intervention of his own in managing to slip in a paragraph, a reference to the Responsibility to Protect, into the final document of the summit of September 2005.

But the truth is that when it comes to it, the great majority of the member states don't mean it. They attach much more weight and importance to maintaining the principle of national sovereignty and noninterference than they do to any responsibility to protect.

I'm sorry to say it. I mean, I don't like it, but nevertheless, it is the truth. ...

How, in the end, do you think Kofi Annan views his tenure on this subject of stopping crimes against humanity?

I believe that he's a deeply decent man who did want to do good. I don't think for a single nanosecond that he would do anything less than everything he possibly could to stop crimes against humanity. But his own experience of the willingness of those who have the power to use it has been quite bitter.

I also think that the experience of Rwanda has left deep scars on his soul. I went with him to Rwanda in 1998, and I don't know whether you know him, but he's the most empathetic and sympathetic of men, and I don't think he realized what he was letting himself in for. He was in effect ambushed, and demonstrations were set up, and people met him at the little church with all of the skulls and bones inside it, and survivors read out prepared texts saying, "We look to the U.N. to protect us, and the U.N. abandoned us; and we look to you to protect us, Kofi Annan, and, Kofi Annan, you abandoned us," and so on.

He walked through that like a man in shock. And in saying hello and talking to the survivors, he was like a ghost himself and in a trance almost. So I think that's left him with very, very deep scars. ...

How big a setback was Somalia with the Americans?

The trouble was that there was a series of perceived failures in peacekeeping in the mid-1990s which caused the Security Council to be extremely risk-averse for a period of about five or six years. You didn't just have Somalia. And by the way, what went wrong in Somalia -- I mean the catastrophe in Mogadishu -- wasn't to do with the U.N. peacekeeping operation; that was the American MNF [Multi-National Force]. ...

But it was Somalia, it was Bosnia and particularly the massacres in the so-called safe areas, and it was Rwanda. The three of those within a very short period of time meant that the hubris after the end of the Cold War when the council thought it would kind of deal with everything was replaced by a feeling that they could deal with nothing.

I've noticed that one of the problems in the U.N. and elsewhere is that the pendulum swings too far in one direction or another, and we've currently got a problem of severe overstretch because of the very large number of troops that are deployed around the world, because you can't fire and forget.

I mean, they all have to be managed; they all have to be supplied; they have to be supported. ... One of the problems in places like Sudan, if you're not careful, you get swallowed up by the question of how many four-wheel drives do we need? Have we got enough troops? Are there problems in such-and-such a contingent? And the question of the strategy that needs to be driven forward and kept under constant review can be almost slipped to one side and end up being neglected.

That's why, as I said to you earlier, I'm worried that, as far as I can see, there is no policy for Sudan. Nothing is being done to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and the issue of Darfur is, at the diplomatic level, is not being pursued with sufficient vigor and energy and is still underfunded and underresourced, though I'm told that that may be being corrected right now.

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posted november 20, 2007

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