The Magazine

Kofi's Choice

The U.N. secretary general gets entangled in l'Affaire Sommaruga.

May 13, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 34 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

KOFI ANNAN has a problem. In his eagerness to nail Israel for the "Jenin massacre," the U.N. secretary general named an investigating committee of three, including one Cornelio Sommaruga, former head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

This was unfortunate for Annan, despite the fact that the committee was disbanded within days (a combination of Israel's insistence on conditions of fairness and emerging evidence that the entire massacre story was a fiction). In choosing Sommaruga, out of an entire universe of people who could have brought probity and impartiality to the investigation, Annan chose a man with a past.

The incident occurred in November 1999 in Geneva. Dr. Bernadine Healy, then head of the American Red Cross, had made a passionate speech questioning the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for having denied entry to Israel for 50 years. Sommaruga confronted her in a private meeting shortly thereafter. Eyes bulging and furious, Sommaruga said to her, "If we're going to have the Shield of David, why would we not have to accept the swastika?"

I first cited this incident in a column two years ago ("Red Cross Snub," Washington Post, March 24, 2000). Now that it has come back to haunt Sommaruga and Annan, they have gone into high damage control. The result is a train wreck.

Edward Mortimer, Annan's director of communications, claims (Washington Post, April 29) that this statement was taken out of context. His witness is one Alan Baker, an Israeli diplomat. Nice touch. Baker, he says, "was present during this conversation." Mortimer then quotes the Jerusalem Post quoting Baker, calling any casting of aspersions on Sommaruga "a vile manipulation of something said in a different context."

I checked the statement that Baker made to the Jerusalem Post. It reads: "I know the context because I was there. When we were talking about adding additional emblems in the Red Cross movement, Sommaruga remembered that the old historic Indian symbol of the swastika, before it was used by the Nazis, was proposed as a humanitarian red cross symbol."

This is a howler. First, Baker was never at the meeting. I verified this with Bernadine Healy, who was. Her notes confirm her recollection, as does the colleague who was in the room with her during the meeting.

Second, it is obvious that Baker was not at the meeting because his account contradicts the account given by the very person he is trying to defend--Cornelio Sommaruga. On the same page of the Washington Post that carries Mortimer's letter, there appears a letter from Sommaruga claiming that what he said to Dr. Healy was: "Would you be ready to accept the swastika as requested by Sri Lanka?"

The defendants cannot seem to get their stories straight. Baker said it was a discussion of pre-Nazi Indian religious symbols. Sommaruga says he was talking about Sri Lanka, a country that did not even come into existence until Nazism had been dead for three years, and did not change its name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka until 1972. So which is it, gentlemen?

This contradiction caused a problem for Annan's flack, Mr. Mortimer. So what does he do when Sommaruga says postwar Sri Lanka and Baker says prewar India? He does a beautiful East River straddle, offering his own compromise version--"a conversation Mr. Sommaruga had with Bernadine Healy . . . in 1999, when he asked her rhetorically whether she would be ready to accept a red swastika, which had been requested by an Asian country. . . ."

"Asian." Clever.

Third, the "context" alleged by Mortimer, Baker, and a previous defense of Sommaruga by Urs Boegli, ICRC head of media services (letter to the Washington Post, April 2, 2000), is pure invention. Baker, for example, says: "When we were talking about adding additional emblems in the Red Cross movement, Sommaruga remembered . . . the old historic Indian symbol of the swastika."

Nonsense. As Dr. Healy wrote the Washington Post (April 5, 2000), "Mr. Sommaruga's statement was . . . in essence, if Israel's humanitarian organization, Magen David Adom, was allowed to use the red shield of David as its symbol, what was to stop someone from using the swastika? Sadly, his statement was made without context. Only after I expressed my astonishment did he invoke an example of a country that might wish to use such a symbol (SriLanka . . .)."

Healy was so astonished by this statement that she asked the ICRC to tell her when Sri Lanka had asked to use the swastika. She was told vaguely that perhaps it had occurred sometime in the 1950s, but no documentation was produced.