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A Life Beyond Borders
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan Remembered

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (second from left) and his wife, Nane (left) visit the pediatric wing of the Zinder Hospital in Zinder, Niger, on August 23, 2005. (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

It may be too soon to define the legacy of Kofi Annan, who died August 18 at age 80.  But the former secretary-general, who presided over the United Nations from 1997 to 2006, is being remembered as a warm, soft-spoken person who listened closely to those around him and led with an assured confidence.

“Kofi Annan was one of the highest profile and most widely admired secretaries-general to lead the United Nations,” said Dr. Edward C. Luck, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs who was assistant secretary-general and special adviser to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from 2008 to 2012.

Annan, who was born and raised in Ghana and educated in the United States and Switzerland, was the first secretary-general who rose through the ranks of the United Nations to become its leader. Over the years, he worked for UN agencies including the World Health Organization, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO).

“He was a pivotal figure at UN headquarters” long before he was secretary-general, said Barbara Crossette of The Nation, who, as UN bureau chief of The New York Times, began covering Annan when he was head of the DPKO.

Dr. Robert Orr, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a former assistant UN secretary-general, also got to know Annan at the DPKO. Orr was working for the US government at the time.

“He was a natural problem solver and diplomat. A real go-to guy for issues that needed solving," Orr said. “He emanated preternatural calm. Even as crises broke around him, he stayed calm and steered the ship, enabling others around him to focus on what they needed to do.”

Although the United Nations was repeatedly a target for criticism, Orr said Annan weathered it with a quiet resolve. “Kofi was the UN and the UN was Kofi. Attacks on the UN were attacks on him, and he bore the weight of those attacks.”

Early Steps on Reform

Annan became secretary-general in 1997, after the United States blocked Boutros Boutros-Ghali from a second term. (The Clinton administration blamed Boutros-Ghali for a failed peacekeeping operation in Somalia in 1993.)

“[Annan] took office at a point when the organization was deeply divided,” Luck said. “His affable demeanor and ready smile were reassuring, and he had a calming influence, which was especially needed in relations with the US.”

Luck added that Annan “knew the UN intimately from decades of service and was determined to reform its bureaucracy and intergovernmental machinery.”

When Annan was elected secretary-general, Orr was working on UN affairs at the US National Security Council and took a lead on US policy toward UN reform.

“I got to see him as a leader on the hard, nonsexy, but extremely important issues of UN reform in this context,” Orr said. “I came to work for him when he decided three years before the end of his tenure as SG that he wanted to build and leave behind a more robust strategic planning function in the secretary-general’s office.”

Stanley Foundation President Keith Porter, who first met Annan in 2005 when he interviewed him for a radio documentary, said that year’s World Summit is perhaps the closest the United Nations ever came to large-scale reform. “That effort was mostly derailed by a handful of member states. But that shouldn’t diminish some of the things that did come out of the 2005 World Summit.” Porter said one of the most important things to come out of that summit was the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). “Kofi Annan took that very seriously. It should be remembered as a highlight of his term,” Porter said.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan meets Keith Porter, now president of the Stanley Foundation, in 2005, when Porter interviewed him for a radio documentary. (Photo courtesy of Keith Porter)

In 2005, Annan also released the report “In Larger Freedom,” which found that development, security, and human rights must coexist and that the world had to take a holistic view of all three. Orr said this view “profoundly shaped how the world came to view the relationship between these agendas.” The report, Orr added, “will provide a guiding light in this regard for years to come.”

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (second from left) meets with community leaders at the Zam Zam Internally Displaced Persons Camp, on July 1, 2004, in the Darfur region of Sudan. Annan took the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect very seriously, said Stanley Foundation President Keith Porter. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe) 

Another initiative Annan launched was the Global Compact, which encourages businesses to adopt sustainable, socially just policies.

“In launching the Global Compact, he signaled his intention to bridge the long-held aversion to the private sector that was pervasive in the world body,” Luck said. “Likewise, he constantly stressed the importance of civil society in the UN’s work across the board. Both of these steps have laid the foundation for a much broader and more inclusive approach to conflict prevention, peacemaking, and peacebuilding,” Luck said.

After September 11, Luck said, Annan moved quickly to formulate a counterterrorism strategy for the United Nations.

“He was a believer in the value of ideas and of upgrading UN doctrine to advance peace and curb conflict,” Luck said.

Challenges at the Helm

Annan’s leadership of the United Nations wasn’t without its bumps.

“When I think back on his term as secretary-general, there were historic challenges, events that he had to react to and for which the moral leadership of the office came into question,” Porter said.

The failure of the United Nations to stop genocide in the Balkans followed its failure to stop genocide in Rwanda. (The genocide in Rwanda took place while Annan led the DPKO.) But Annan owned up to these failures and spent the rest of his life expressing regret. With the adoption of R2P, Orr said, Annan “shifted the very lines of absolute sovereignty on which the foundations of the United Nations were built.”

Crossette said Annan was also criticized for what became known as the Oil for Food Program in Iraq. Under the arrangement, Saddam Hussein’s government, which was subject to tough UN sanctions after the invasion of Kuwait, was able to sell its oil to buy certain goods only for (ostensibly) humanitarian purposes.

“When it turned out to be a scandalous operation, with countries and companies cheating by cutting illegal secret deals with Iraq, Annan was severely criticized by Republicans in Congress and a lot of American media,” Crossette said. But an investigation by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker in 2005 cleared the United Nations of any wrongdoing.

Although he came to lead the United Nations thanks mainly to the United States, Annan did not have the easiest time with the Americans during his tenure, especially when it came to Iraq. “Personally, Annan’s health suffered severely under the tension and some vicious opprobrium heaped on him in the US, almost to the point of a nervous breakdown,” Crossette said.

US President George W. Bush listens to Secretary-General Kofi Annan during a luncheon for world leaders at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 12, 2002. Although he came to lead the United Nations thanks mainly to the United States, Annan did not have the easiest time with the Americans during his tenure. (Reuters/Win McNamee/

In 2003, Annan said the US-led invasion of Iraq that overthrew Saddam Hussein was counter to international law, causing outrage in Washington, according to Crossette.

Annan was roundly and unfairly criticized by some American experts and members of the press, according to Porter. “It seems particularly unfair, because he understood that it was a great failing of the institution that it couldn’t stop that war from happening,” Porter said.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan looks out the window of a UN aircraft on March 24, 1997, en route to a meeting with Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola in Bailundo. Former New York Times UN bureau chief Barbara Crossette said Annan was “an extremely sensitive and warm person who only occasionally showed flashes of anger.” (UN Photo/Milton Grant)

Crossette pointed out that “no UN secretary-general has the power to make the big decisions on war and peace.”

“When he was accused of failing, it was often because prominent Security Council members, usually the United States, blocked his moves,” she said.

Such moves weren’t exclusive to Annan, either.

“Boutros-Ghali once told me that when the Balkans began to erupt, he asked for more than 30,000 peacekeepers. The US blocked that, as it later blocked any significant response to the Rwanda genocide,” Crossette said. “In the end, only about 7,000 peacekeepers went to Bosnia and in Rwanda.”

Annan’s Leadership Style

Annan was “such an interesting mixture of this elder statesman and graceful diplomat who also had such a friendly welcoming demeanor,” Porter recalled. “He had this look and way of carrying himself of a wise elder who just embodied such a sense of gravitas. So I think it made it even more surprising when he would exude warmth and friendliness. I think he was very unusual in the fact that he had both of those personas and they coexisted so well together.”

Annan was “an extremely sensitive and warm person who only occasionally showed flashes of anger,” Crossette said. She recalled a time “he was under intense pressure, and he dressed down a British reporter who, in his words, was behaving ‘like a schoolboy’ by badgering him during a briefing,” Crossette said.

Orr said Annan’s background in Africa helped ground him.

“Kofi knew exactly who he was and where he came from and used this understanding to develop his own distinctly African style of leadership to the world. He didn’t shy away from his identity or his own history; rather he used it—authentically, openly,” Orr said. “One of his defining qualities as a leader that he brought with him from Africa, and the village tradition he saw growing up, was that he was the best listener-in-chief I have ever seen. He spoke softly and only when he needed to but would inevitably tip the balance or show the way with the utterance of only a few sentences.”

The fact that Annan built his career within the UN “provided him with a unique perspective on what it means to be a global citizen,” Porter said. “To spend so many years working as an international civil servant provides us with a role model for what it can mean to put humanity above borders.”

Thoughts on a Legacy

Annan will “be remembered more for uplifting words and intentions than for operational results,” Luck said. “In his efforts to curb conflict, three themes stood out. One was conflict prevention, which he consistently championed over reaction after the fact. The second was an emphasis on accountability, including by creating new instruments, such as ad hoc tribunals and the International Criminal Court. The third was a determination to make atrocity prevention a core objective of the world body. His 1998–99 speeches on the topic and his advocacy of R2P were critical to his legacy, as was his candid report on the massacre at Srebrenica.”

Secretary-General Kofi Annan takes part in the pressing of noses, or hongi, with a Maori warrior on February 24, 2000, in Wellington, New Zealand, while his wife, Nane, watches. The hongi signifies the sharing of the life force and the breath of life, and is a form of greeting in Maori culture. Dr. Robert Orr, a former assistant UN secretary-general, said Annan “emanated preternatural calm.” (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

“He fared much better in his first term than his second,” Luck added. “But he always pointed the way toward a more relevant and principled world body and to a better future.”

Annan used his knowledge of the UN organization to “remake it for a new age,” Orr said. “He injected an esprit de corps into the organization that remade its culture. The organization under his leadership attracted and retained the best and the brightest. Young people, women, and southern voices that had long been underrepresented in the organization found space to be heard. And he fostered a family feeling even in an organization the size of the United Nations.”

Crossette agreed. “His appointments were on the whole sound ones; he looked for real talent and was able to resist numerous pleas for political favors from governments, a bane of all secretaries-general. He created the position of deputy secretary-general at the UN to assist him in management and appointed a woman to fill it, Louise Fréchette, a Canadian diplomat and former deputy defense minister of Canada.”

In the end, Orr said, Annan will be remembered as a leader who “stood forward not when it was easy, but when it was hard. He spoke truth to power, even when he remained under attack for doing so. And he endured the marathon on the big issues for the good of others—with stamina, patience, and grace.”

His demeanor cannot be separated entirely from his partnership with his wife, Nane, an elegant Swedish aristocrat and international lawyer in her own right. They were a very close pair who were much sought after by many leaders of various sectors in New York life, as well as by all the diplomatic missions surrounding the UN. They were gracious and outgoing together, but could communicate in an almost imperceptible exchange of glances. Nane, who was also a talented artist, had her own life but often used it to supplement his work, hosting lunches for prominent women or other important people passing through the UN.

Barbara Crossette, who knew Kofi Annan
as UN bureau chief for
The New York Times. 

— Francie Williamson, The Stanley Foundation
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