ON THREE accounts, Kofi Annan, perhaps one of the most distinguished and illustrious UN secretary generals, was quite different from rest of the lot. First, he was the first UN secretary general ever to come from a lifelong career in the UN bureaucracy. Second, he was also the first UN secretary general from sub-Saharan Africa, a courtly figure who spearheaded the global organisation during a period of tumult. And third, he was the last UN secretary general to prominently figure, in news headlines and public mind across the globe, as a central figure in the major international conflicts of his time.
Throughout his 10 years as head of the world body, Kofi Annan was often labelled as a symbol of preternatural calm. With the traditional tranquillity and disciplined oratory skills of a career-diplomat, he always appeared, even to his very close associates and colleagues, to be a man with little tendency to divulge his anger in extreme situations. His unflustered persona — and carefully nurtured image of an honest broker between conflicting interests — was generally considered to be his key strength. At the same time, in much more intense ways, however, this aloofness was also cited as his defining weakness.
His splendid tenure as secretary general, which began six years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and also covered the 9/11 episode and subsequent US-led invasion of Iraq, was one of the UN’s most turbulent periods since its inception in 1945. At a time when worries about the cold war were gradually swapped by threats of global terrorism, his untiring efforts to muffle those threats and secure a more peaceful world that eventually brought him the Nobel peace prize.
Annan made conscious efforts, though at the cost of being caustically mocked as discreet global bully, to assert the UN’s authority as the ultimate arbiter of legitimacy and legality in international affairs. But he resisted the temptation to make any more of the insincere promises of protection that the UN had repeatedly betrayed on his watch at peacekeeping and for this, he was eulogised as a reformer. But his attempt to transform the UN’s role as an international legal authority denoted confining its legitimacy to nothing more, nor less, than the Security Council’s seal of approval.
However, the unobtrusive contradictions of this legalistic position came to the surface in the run-up to the Iraq War, when the United States made its case for forcibly overthrowing Saddam Hussein on the account of Saddam’s refusal to comply with past Security Council resolutions, Annan was caught in a bind, indirectly steering the Security Council into granting legitimacy to a war that he and most of the UN’s member states considered illegitimate.
His tenure was bitterly smudged by a 2005 investigation of Annan and his son over the ‘oil-for-food’ scandal, seen by some as retribution for his valiant condemnation of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq as ‘illegal’. Although an inquiry exonerated Annan of any serious wrongdoing but found some ethical and management lapses linked to his son’s direct connection with a Swiss company that won lucrative contracts in the oil-for-food scheme. Annan later admitted that the scandal had sorely tested his mettle not only as secretary general, but as a father.
Laced with many major initiatives that made tangible impact on the perception as well as working of the UN, Annan’s decade-long stint is generally considered to be the period of ‘dynamism and activism’ that overshadowed the vivacity of Kurt Waldheim. Annan, who spent his entire career at the United Nations, initiated a mega project of reform and long-overdue overhauling at the world body, sketched an ambitious agenda to lessen global poverty, and established a global fund to combat HIV/AIDS. But the experiences of Rwanda and Srebrenica prompted Annan in 1999 to question the role of the international community in protecting civilian populations.
But in many ways, Annan’s legacy will be defined as much by his failures, and what he did with them, as by his many successes. Annan took many risky decisions that were potentially career-ending but which he managed to sail through unhurt. In 1994, the UN Security Council and others including Annan were accused by the UN field commander in Rwanda of ignoring his warnings, which resulted in the world’s reluctance to send troops to prevent the estimated 8,00,000 deaths. His perceived inaction, as the head of UN’s peacekeeping operations, to stop the genocide of 8,00,000 Rwandans, worst in the recorded history of the African continent, haunted him throughout his life.
On the tenth anniversary of this black chapter, in 2004, Annan said: ‘I believed at that time that I was doing my best, but I realised after the genocide that there was more that I could have and should have done.’ The next year, another moment came with the thousands of Muslims who were brutally massacred in Srebrenica as Bosnian Serbs overran a UN ‘safe zone.’ The secretary general at the time, Boutros Boutros Ghali, took the heat for UN failings in two of the darkest episodes of its history. Subsequent UN reports about the body’s handling of the massacres were very critical of Annan’s leadership.
Aside from these two resentful chapters in his career, which incidentally belonged to his pre-secretary general period, there is long list of unprecedented positives that he brought to the world body. He opened up the doors of the UN to the people of the world. While the UN Charter appropriately begins with the words ‘We the Peoples’, the members of the UN are in fact the world’s governments. Kofi made sure through his direct and indirect initiatives that people all over the world would regard the UN as ‘theirs’, not merely their governments’. He indefatigably championed the moral charter of the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He brought the business community into the UN through the Global Compact.
Most poignantly, passionately and successfully, he redirected world’s focus on the downtrodden and oppressed ones in the world community, as the world’s great moral traditions bid us to do. Annan’s greatest achievement for the poor was to mobilise global energies to fight poverty, hunger and disease through the Millennium Development Goals, which he put forward to the world’s governments at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000. Similarly, with the dazzling persuasive powers of the world’s consummate diplomat, Annan convinced the world in 2001 to sign up another great project in the form of a new global fund to fight Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.
However, one of his controversial trait was his unswerving refusal to acknowledge any meaningful sense of personal or institutional responsibility for the UN debacles in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia, even as he spoke tirelessly of the world’s desperate need for more responsible leadership— ‘cool heads and sober judgement’, as he put it recently. That he was incapable of enforcing the UN sway was a congenital weakness, essentially, embedded in his office, but it was also a function of his snooping blend of grandiosity and unaccountability.
For obvious reasons, he fancied himself a pompous leader, but he was constitutionally handicap to accept the burdens that great leadership entails. In his final press conference as UN secretary general, he spoke bitterly, even mockingly, of being asked to carry the weight of his office. ‘There is a tendency in certain places to blame the secretary general for everything, for Rwanda, for Srebrenica, for Darfur’, he said. ‘But should we not also blame the secretary general for Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the tsunami, earthquakes? Perhaps the secretary general should be blamed for all of those things. We can have fun with that, if you want.’
The paradox of that authority, however, is that it entirely emanates from the willingness and consent of sovereign powers over which it is meant to hold sway. Annan’s insistence that the UN could not be directly held responsible for its failures, but that it should get credit in cases of success, failed to resolve that paradox. Factually speaking, the finger-pointing and name-calling are emblematic of the methodology the UN Security Council has demonstrated during global conflicts, even during the Annan era, as each of its permanent members behaves selfishly to protect its interests or fails to act. That inaction was amply displayed most recently during the conflict with the Rohingya in Myanmar; Annan chaired an independent commission into the violence against the Rohingya and warned of radicalisation if the Burmese government did not resolve the issue non-violently.
Kofi Annan, the master practitioner of art of finding common grounds by listening to and respecting others, inspired us, guided us and protected us to the best of his abilities. In his interview with the BBC, in April this year, in one of his last public appearances, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, he frankly acknowledged that the UN still had some faults in its fundamental operating codes but those faults would be addressed with continuous evolution of the world body in the coming days.
He said, ‘The UN can be improved, it is not perfect but if it didn’t exist you would have to create it. I am a stubborn optimist, I was born an optimist and will remain an optimist.’ Nonetheless, he left the stage with a contented and satisfied heart, we hope.
Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance contributor from Karachi, Pakistan.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion