On three accounts, Kofi Annan, perhaps one of the most distinguished and illustrious UN Secretary-General, was quite different from rest of the lot. One, he was the first UN Secretary-General ever to come from a lifelong career in the UN bureaucracy. Two, he was also the first UN Secretary-General from sub-Saharan Africa, a courtly figure who spearheaded the global organization during a period of tumult. And thirdly, 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 ten years as head of the world body, Kofi Annan was often labeled 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.
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.
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.
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 800,000 deaths. His perceived inaction, as the head of UN’s peacekeeping operations, to stop the genocide of 800,000 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 realized after the genocide that there was more that I could have and should have done.”
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. Kofi’s greatest achievement for the poor was to mobilize global energies to fight poverty, hunger and disease through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which Kofi 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.
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 is 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 final 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 content and satisfied heart, we pray.