By Shanta Roy
NEW YORK (IDN) – Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the first from sub-Saharan Africa, was the only UN chief who rose from the mid-level ranks of the professional staff to the 38th floor of the Secretariat.
At a wreath-laying ceremony in the UN precincts on August 21, Secretary-General António Guterres said “because of Annan’s long and varied career in different offices and departments, it sometimes seemed as though Kofi knew everyone personally.”
“But even staff members who never met him felt a bond with Kofi, because he was really one of us. In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations,” he declared.
Launching his career at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva in 1962, Annan moved up the ladder holding multiple positions – as director, as Under-Secretary-General, and finally reaching his peak as Secretary-General (1997-2006).
Unlike Javier Perez de Cuellar, the fifth UN chief, who graduated from Under-Secretary-General to Secretary-General (1982-1991), Annan was a home-grown product who was fully integrated with the UN compared with the other eight secretaries-general, including Trygve Lie of Norway, Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden, U. Thant of Burma (now Myanmar), Kurt Waldheim of Austria, Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea and Antonio Guterres of Portugal.
Annan, who died August 18 in Switzerland, was a quintessential international civil servant who rubbed elbows with kings and world political leaders – but still never lost his common touch.
On August 18, the New York Times quoted Canadian author and politician Michael Ignatieff as saying: “Few people have spent so much time around negotiating tables with thugs, warlords and dictators (as Annan did).”
“He made himself the world’s emissary to the dark side,” said Ignatieff, in his review of Annan’s 2012 memoirs Interventions: A Life in War and Peace.
But the United States never forgave him for denouncing the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, as an “illegal” act, because it was not authorized by the Security Council.
The Western world was equally livid when he decided to negotiate directly with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on UN weapons inspections, visiting the presidential palace in Baghdad in 1998, and reportedly lighting up a cigar with the much-maligned dictator.
The critics who tried to cripple both Annan and the United Nations were mostly U.S. right-wing neo-conservatives and some of the mainstream newspapers in the United States. The vitriolic campaign against him began with a much-publicised radio interview in which Annan said that the U.S. war on Iraq was “illegal”.
Dr Palitha Kohona, a former Chief of the UN Treaty Section and later Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka, told IDN that Annan was rightly respected by the UN staff as he rose from among them and was always sensitive to their concerns.
“That is not to say that he did not respond to the wishes of the international community, especially the donor community, to make the UN a leaner and a more effective organisation.”
He wanted to make the UN more results-oriented. It was no easy task as the Organisation had reached middle age and was substantially set in its ways.
He set about achieving the goal of organisational reform through a process of consultation and gradual implementation establishing many task forces which contributed to processes which will continue to deliver positive results in to the future.
Annan lived through two of the “darkest chapters” in the history of the UN: the Rwandan genocide and the Bosnian war.
Erol Avdovic, a UN-based journalist and managing editor of Webpublicapress told IDN that when Annan assumed office, he inherited several post-Cold War crises – from Bosnia in central Europe to Rwanda in Africa.
“Being a Bosnian journalist who covered UN at the time, I witnessed the crisis in Bosnia being played out at the United Nations.” Annan was disturbed by the inability, and even more with lack of coordination in the organization he headed.
With no efficient power structure – and since every nation with UN peace-keeping forces (UNPROFOR) in former Yugoslavia had its own command in its capital – the results were tragic, he pointed out.
Annan stature, said Avdovic, was reflected in his determination to become the first to apologize on behalf of the UN for all that happened in Bosnia under the blue UN flag.
And in his (UN) Report on Srebrenica (issued in November 1999, in New York), he acknowledged the genocide against local Muslims that took place in July 1995 in this small town in Bosnia, partly because of the UN’s failure.
In fact, Annan said, “calmly but truly again that this crime, as a horrible spirit, will haunt UN for all times. And he was right.”
Nearly 23 years after – looks like UN has not yet learned its Bosnian lessons. Nor is it able to save new victims from the ethnic cleansing campaign.
“The expulsion, incarceration, murder, raping of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar isproof of it,” declared Avdovic, a former President of the UN Correspondents’ Association (UNCA).
Paying a tribute to Annan, Guterres said Annan’s most defining features were his humanity and solidarity with those in need. He put people at the centre of the work of the United Nations, and was able to turn compassion into action across the UN system.
“We are still reaping the rewards of the Millennium Summit, when he brought the world together to agree the first global targets on poverty and child mortality. His response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic united governments, Non-Governmental Organizations and the healthcare industry and undoubtedly saved many lives.”
Guterres said Annan faced up to the grave errors made by the United Nations in the 1990s – in its response to the Rwanda Genocide and the Srebrenica killings – by shining a light inside the UN.
“The reports he commissioned aimed to make sure such terrible mistakes are never repeated, and set the international community on a new course in its response to mass atrocities,” he added.
Dr Kohona said: “I recall that when the Treaty Section of Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) proposed that a treaty signature/ratification event be held in parallel with the Millennium Summit in 2000, there was considerable resistance among senior officers of the Organisation who thought that it would be a distraction and just wanted another high level talk fest for world leaders.”
“We argued that the magnificent speeches made by the world leaders at the Summit would be forgotten sooner than imagined but treaty actions undertaken would remain legal commitments and would contribute to advancing the cherished goal of a rule oriented international community.”
Kofi Annan was attracted to the idea and a Treaty signature/ratification event was held in a specially constructed facility in the Kuwaiti Boat Room in the UN Secretariat. Contrary to all expectations the Treaty Event was a resounding success with world leaders trooping in one after each other to undertake treaty actions, said Kohona.
There 284 “treaty actions” undertaken during the event and contributed in its small way to advancing the goal of a rule based global community.
“I recall the heavy weights of the world arena of the day, such as Jacques Chirac of France, Gerhard Schröder of Germany, Tony Blair of Britain – and 86 other heads of state and heads of government – trooping in to the Kuwaiti Boat Room to undertake treaty actions.”
Now the Treaty Event is a much-anticipated occasion during the annual General Assembly. Kofi Annan was so pleased with the outcome that he hosted a cocktail for my team after the event, said Dr Kohona.
Annan, who shared the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize with the Organisation he headed, continued his diplomacy with the think tank, the Elders, comprising mostly of former world leaders.
Lamenting the political, social and economic crises facing the world, he told AFP in December 2017: “Honestly speaking, we are in a mess. Today, leaders are going in the wrong direction… leaders are withdrawing.”
And he was right – again! [IDN-InDepthNews – 23 August 2018]
Go to IN MEMORIAM (1938-2018) for other articles about the 7th UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Photo: Secretary-General António Guterres pays his respects during a ceremony honouring the memory and legacy of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who passed away on 18 August at the age of 80. Annan was the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, serving from 1997 to 2006. 22 August 2018. United Nations, New York. Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias
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