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In Their Own Words: A UN Oral History Project Moves Online

Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, is now an Elder, a group of international leaders that travel to hot spots to help broker peace. Annan has shared his views and recollections of his former post for the new UN Oral History project. JEFF MOORE/THE ELDERS

What goes on inside the United Nations as important issues are hashed out by officials and diplomats is rarely seen or heard by outsiders – consider the tense negotiations on Syria right now, done behind closed doors. But earlier this month, the opening of an archive of interviews with both insiders and others who have been close to the organization offered for the first time glimpses behind the scenes at the UN.

The United Nations Oral History collection includes scores of audio-taped or transcribed interviews with at least 50 people, from 1945 to 2005. Kofi Annan, a former secretary-general, is among those who shared his views and recollections, along with several former UN spokesmen, other staff members, diplomats and journalists.

Of special interest to an American audience are a series of discussions about the UN’s relations with Iraq during the 1990s and into the early years of this century, before the US-led invasion in 2003. The experts interviewed, including two directors of UN weapons inspection commissions – Hans Blix and Rolf Ekeus – as well as Charles Duelfer, the American inspector who later led a strictly US investigation, the Iraq Survey Group, post-2003, address the tensions between Washington and the UN over Iraqi policies, among other topics.

Distrust of the Secretariat

Thomas Pickering, the widely respected American ambassador at the UN from 1989 to 1992 – through the 1991 war to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation and the imposition of sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein – said in an interview done for the oral history project that the US government did not trust the UN Secretariat.

“While there was deference to the Secretary-General in terms of cycling or passing reports through him,” Pickering told an interviewer, “there was no effort at all, in fact, there was a positive effort to deny, that the Secretary General should play any substantive role in the process, or that the Secretariat, or others around the Secretary-General, should become involved in the substance of the process in making independent judgments or carrying out arms control activities with respect to Iraq.”

By the end of the 1990s, under the Clinton administration, relations between the US and the UN and its inspectors were barely civil. American bombing of Iraq in the summer of 1998 ended weapons inspections under the UN Special Commission, and they did not resume until November 2002, after a new inspection system, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, was negotiated with Iraq. By then, the Bush administration was preparing an invasion of Iraq, and years of work by UN experts, who had been dismissed out of hand in Washington, had been lost.

The United Nations Oral History collection, now part of the Dag Hammarskjold Library at the UN, is the work of researchers at Yale University, led by Jean Krasno and James Sutterlin, who did most of the interviews. Krasno is a distinguished fellow in international security studies at Yale, where she teaches courses about the UN, and also a lecturer at City College in New York, where she directs the multilateralism and international organization initiative at the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies.

Sutterlin, a former UN official, is a distinguished fellow at Yale’s International Security Studies and director of research and adjunct professor at the Long Island University Institute for the Study of International Relations. Both have written books about the UN.

In addition to a list of 50 interview subjects, the collection also makes available to the public a range of several dozen topical subjects, from the UN’s early years through its involvement in ending apartheid to the long-running Middle East crisis and the workings of major UN bodies, like the Security Council and the now-defunct Human Rights Commission.


 

 

Additional resources

Quietly, New US Policies Align With the UN

At Security Council Workshops, Candid Talk

Regional Partners Lighten the UN’s Burden

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