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Vol 60 No 1

Published 11th January 2019


Kofi Annan (1938-2018)

In an era when narrow nationalism and populism are taking on the international system, the career of Kofi Annan showed where the battle lines were drawn. Described by colleagues as a 'diplomat's diplomat', Annan spent his professional life in the United Nations, becoming one of its most powerful advocates, reshaping the organisation, pushing it to do more to fight poverty, injustice and oppression.

In an era when narrow nationalism and populism are taking on the international system, the career of Kofi Annan showed where the battle lines were drawn.

Described by colleagues as a 'diplomat's diplomat', Annan spent his professional life in the United Nations, becoming one of its most powerful advocates, reshaping the organisation, pushing it to do more to fight poverty, injustice and oppression. 

Annan always insisted that his early life in Kumasi and the values of those who had nurtured him had shaped his world view and approach to diplomacy. That willingness to listen to all and a search for negotiated solutions typified Annan's diplomatic style. In his last eight years at the UN as Secretary General, Annan would have struggled to have picked a tougher period at the helm. Critics were lambasting the organisation for its overweight and politicised bureaucracy, and its richest member states were withholding funding.

Acutely aware of the UN's shortcomings and failures, Annan was committed to multilateral solutions to global woes such as military conflicts, environmental and financial crises. His determination to seek those solutions through painstaking diplomacy led Annan to clash with the top powers on the UN Security Council. His public opposition to the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 angered the administration of President George W Bush but reflected the views of most UN member states and tens of millions of US citizens.

Annan argued that as Secretary General, he had to represent the Charter of the UN, principles that gave primacy to the peaceful resolution of conflicts, as well as of the interests of the member states. In that sense, Annan was more General than Secretary; more in the tradition of Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN's second Secretary General. Beyond the UN's headline roles in the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, Annan channelled his efforts into making the organisation more effective in pushing for economic and social development, using its international heft to mitigate climate change, and to boost education and healthcare.

Those aims underpinned the launching of the UN's Millennium Development Goals in 2000, which marked Annan's effort to get an international agreement on fighting poverty and disease. That year he explained the initiative in Niger: 'We have learned that power has to be shared in the home, between men and women, and from there on up to the highest levels of state, and indeed of the international system.' He also said: 'My generation of Africans has learned the hard way that no state can truly be called democratic if it offers its people no escape from poverty, and that no country can truly develop so long as its people are excluded from power.' Annan's other ground-breaking UN initiative was getting the General Assembly in 2005 to back the Responsibility to Protect resolution, a commitment to protect peoples from genocide and crimes against humanity.

Its roots lay in Annan's tenure as head of UN peacekeeping operations from 1993-97 during which the organisation was tested by the genocide of over 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994 and the massacre of over 8,000 Bosnians in Srebrenica the following year. In both cases, UN peacekeepers were on the ground and were blamed for inaction. Critics targeted both Annan and the then UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali for these failures. Singling out the top UN officials without recognising that the decisions to withdraw UN peacekeepers from Rwanda and Srebrenica were taken by the five permanent members on the UN Security Council is disingenuous. Big powers criticise the UN but stop it from acting effectively.

The hard power – to deploy troops to save lives – lay with Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, the permanent members of the Security Council, and they chose not to use it. Council members drafted the revolution calling for UN peacekeepers to be withdrawn from Rwanda just as the genocide was launched, leaving hundreds of thousands to their fate.

That doesn't absolve either Annan or Boutros from responsibility as top UN officials, however. 'All of us must bitterly regret that we did not do more to prevent it,' said Annan in the wake of Rwanda's genocide. More determined action and a public diplomacy campaign by top UN officials might have persuaded – or even shamed – the Security Council to back action by the peacekeepers against the genocidaires.

Those tragedies in the 1990s changed the thinking of Annan and many others: that UN membership should imply limits on national sovereignty and that the organisation should have the power to intervene to prevent ethnic killings and rights abuses within nation states. Yet the death tolls in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Congo-Kinshasa remind us how much more it will take to translate the Responsibility to Protect doctrine into reality on the ground.

Annan spent the decade after his stint as Secretary General working with his foundation and others on conflict and development issues, mediating in Kenya's post-election crisis in 2008 and in the Myanmar government's treatment of the Rohingya people. Just weeks before his death, Annan led a delegation of the Elders, the group of diplomats and advisors founded by Nelson Mandela, to Zimbabwe to urge the main parties to abjure violence in the national elections. A diplomat, activist and optimist to the last.

PS



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