The United Nations has been plagued by problems, scandals and, in recent years, a strained relationship with the United States, leaving many divided over the U.N.'s place in the modern world. “Today” show host Katie Couric talked with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the world's highest ranking diplomat, in General Assembly Hall and began by asking if he could convince an American audience that the U.N. is still a relevant and critically important institution.
Kofi Annan: Let me say, the U.N., like all organizations, has some problems. Difficulties that we need to work out. But when you look at the U.N. as a whole, it is an organization of immense importance to every member state in the world.
And recently, you've seen situations where the U.N. has had to step in and help work with the international community to get things done. I think the most vivid example is in the question of the tsunami. The U.N. had to lead the humanitarian response. We responded quickly. We organized elections in Iraq, in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. These are things only the U.N. can do.
Katie Couric: Are you angry that the United States has not been more supportive of the U.N.?
Annan: Not angry but disappointed in the sense that there's a lot that we do together. The U.S. gains a lot by working with other nations through the United Nations. We are not beyond criticism. We welcome constructive criticism. But some of them really have gone beyond the zone of all reasonableness.
Couric: Like who?
Annan: Well, I don't want to name names. But they know themselves.
The biggest scandal to occur under Annan's watch was the oil for food program in Iraq, a humanitarian effort that sent hundreds of millions of dollars into the hands of Saddam Hussein.
“Yes there has been mismanagement, yes, there may have been fraud, and we're getting to the bottom of it,” Annan said.
But perhaps even more embarrassing — his son Kojo was allegedly involved, even though a final report is still pending.
Annan: When I say it was painful because, as a father, when you hear this, you read the reports and the allegations and articles against your son, it's not something that you're going to be very proud about.
Couric: John Bolton, as we know, is the President's choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He has still not been confirmed and some have questioned if he's the right man for the job. In 1994 he said if the U.N. building lost 10 stories it wouldn't make a bit of difference. Does John Bolton have your support?
Annan: Well, it is the responsibility of the President of the United States to designate his representative to this organization. I will wait to see what happens.
Couric: You're wiggling out of this, Mr. Secretary General.
Annan: No, no I’m not.
Couric: Does John Bolton have your support?
Annan: Let me say I have worked extremely well with all of the previous U.S. ambassadors. I expect if he is selected I will be able to work effectively and cooperate with him as I have done with the previous ambassadors.
Couric: Do you wish it were someone else who had been nominated?
Annan: I don't want to step on the president's turf.
Couric: You're being very diplomatic. The U.N. has a 50-member team in Baghdad. Could the U.N. be doing more than it is now?
Annan: We helped establish the interim government of Iraq and we were very instrumental in the organization of the elections. Now we are working with them in drafting a new constitution. So we are in the critical areas. We can do more but the circumstances have to permit us to do it.
Concerns over the safety of U.N. officials in Iraq remain high, following the death of 22 of its workers in August 2003. It’s been the only time in history that terrorists have directly targeted the U.N.
Couric: Is it too dangerous to have more feet on the ground?
Annan: If we had a more secure environment, we could do more. When the security situation permits we will be able to increase our personnel.
Annan has said he will serve out his term, which expires next year, despite calls by his critics to step down.
Couric: What do you hope your legacy will be?
Annan: Almost everything I have done is to really ensure that we do help the individual. Not just material needs. So I hope in the end, when I move on, it could be said that the U.N. is a bit more sensitive to the needs of the individual and that the U.N. is working a little better than it did. I'll be satisfied with that.
Couric: You literally have the weight of the world on your shoulders.
Annan: I do. But not everybody understands that.