Kofi Annan: Visionary and Victim

Kofi Annan, the quiet Ghanaian whose 10-year tenure as United Nations Secretary General ended in December, did more to challenge the thinking and prod the conscience of this unwieldy organization than any of his predecessors. Yet he left office wounded by controversy, pilloried in the U.S. Congress and held in contempt by leaders of poor countries he wanted most to help. How this paradoxical situation developed is a story dictated in part by world events beyond Annan’s power, and at the same time shaped by his own personality and character.

A New Role for the United Nations

Kofi Annan, the first U.N. insider to hold this position, was convinced that the organization needed to be more creative in finding a place for itself in the 21st century, in a globalized world where not only economic activity but also cultural influences, legal precedents, pandemic diseases and criminality were overrunning borders. The United Nations had, moreover, to be much more assertive in confronting abuses of power, he argued. In many ways, the precious post-cold war decade of the 1990’s had been squandered. New democracies foundered, nuclear controls frayed, genocide wracked already weakened nations, women lost rights, poverty worsened in many places and the pressures of migration were inflaming racial and ethnic relationships in industrial countries.

Annan—having grown up in Africa at the optimistic dawn of decolonization and educated in Europe and the United States—saw solutions as a two-way street, with developing and developed nations both playing their parts in bringing more order and equity to a global community. He lectured fellow Africans on the pathologies and consequences of corruption, he argued for stiffer international action against human rights abuses such as those in Darfur and—most traumatic in its backlash—he told the Bush administration that its 2003 war in Iraq violated international law.

Opposition to the Invasion of Iraq

Annan’s unambiguous opposition to invading Iraq without convincing cause or logic or the support of the Security Council, a view shared by many around the world, provoked intense animosity within the Bush administration, in Congress and among ideological critics of the United Nations and internationalism.

Among diplomats and U.N. officials in New York, there is a widespread belief that a “get even” mentality in Washington culminated in calls for Annan’s resignation in 2004-5, when a public scandal arose around the “oil for food” program that had fed Iraqis during a long period of sanctions. That the corruption was not news—I was writing about it in early 2001—or that it involved mostly not U.N. officials but private companies, international financial institutions and national governments (India’s foreign minister was forced to resign after allegations of taking illegal payments) did not seem to matter. Nor did the knowledge that the United States, among others, had turned a blind eye to the irregularities to keep Jordan and Turkey on its side and the sanctions against Saddam Hussein in place.

Annan’s first term began in January 1997 in a very different atmosphere. He had been plucked from the United Nations’ peacekeeping department (a place not without turmoil and soul-searching after disasters in the Balkans, Rwanda and elsewhere) and handed the secretary generalship by the Clinton administration. President Clinton and his first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, had in effect (and by diplomatic standards, brutally) sacked the incumbent secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, for the sake of domestic U.S. politics. America-firsters among Republicans in Congress had focused their ill-mannered scorn on Boutros-Ghali, poking fun at his name and accusing him of plotting to send an imagined U.N. army into the heartland. The United States consequently blocked every effort to have him reappointed to a second term by the Security Council, where the erudite Egyptian had significant support.

Early Success

Annan, a perfect gentleman and soft-spoken to a fault, got off to a dazzling start in his new role in New York, where both he and his elegant, artistic Swedish wife, Nane, had influential friends. Inside the United Nations, a new collegial style of leadership was welcomed by a staff that had felt alternately intimidated and ignored by Boutros-Ghali, a Francophile intellectual with an aversion to camaraderie and even less patience for the New York social scene.

The Annans mixed right in, with the intention of healing United States-United Nations rifts and gaining a sympathetic audience among Americans from the city’s diverse worlds of finance, media, philanthropy and culture. Pictures of the Annans at glittering events began to appear on society pages, provoking some grumbling inside the United Nations among those who wanted their leader to keep his distance from the New York elite. He also came under fire for inviting international corporate leaders to join his Global Compact to foster ethical business practices and contribute to development.

In 2001, when Kofi Annan and the United Nations were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian nominating committee said in explaining its choice that “the only negotiable route to global peace and cooperation goes by way of the United Nations,” and added that Annan was “pre-eminent in bringing new life to the organization.”

It also commended Annan’s then crystallizing—and deeply polarizing—doctrine that the world had the right to override national sovereignty to protect people from their own governments, which too often assumed a “license to kill,” in the words of Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister who is now president of the International Crisis Group, an independent research organization.

Reaction of the Third World

Annan made his plea for “humanitarian intervention” to the Millennium General Assembly in 2000, and it proved to be a turning point in his relations with developing countries, the large majority of U.N. member nations. In a stunning public rebuke during a huge diplomatic reception at U.N. headquarters soon after, Theo-Ben Gurirab, Namibia’s foreign minister and that year’s General Assembly president, tore into the secretary general’s speech, exposing the third world’s thin skin on the subject of sovereignty.

But the snowball had started rolling. By the end of 2001, an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, sponsored by Canada, had issued a report, The Responsibility to Protect, which cleverly turned the spotlight not on the would-be interventionists of the global North and their new putative excuse for meddling, but on the global South. The responsibility to act, in other words, would fall first on those doing the ethnic cleansing, committing war crimes and engaging in other abuses.

In 2005, only five years after his groundbreaking speech (a mere moment, given the United Nations’ normally glacial pace), the principle, linked to a clear go-ahead for outside intervention should a rogue government fail in its duties, was accepted by more than 150 U.N. member nations at a special world summit session of the General Assembly. Though there was still grumbling among some developing nations, this was a monumental step for the United Nations and a touchstone for future crises.

Reform and Renewal

The summit declaration grew out of a reform-and-renewal package that the secretary general had proposed early in 2005 in a report titled In Larger Freedom. Annan, drawing on a wide variety of analyses and recommendations, outlined a “grand bargain” between rich and poor nations, with enough commitments on both sides to win broad support. Industrial nations wanted more security—enhanced anti-terrorism cooperation and attention to nuclear proliferation, for example—while developing nations wanted more attention to ending poverty and creating a fairer global economy, plus a larger voice on the Security Council.

Annan’s bottom line in the report was this: “Our world will not enjoy development without security or security without development, and it will not enjoy either without respect for human rights.” In Larger Freedom was an ambitious blueprint for rethinking the United Nations and its work, and by the time it reached summit level a lot of it had been watered down in compromises, at which the United Nations excels. But Annan was not dismayed, saying that he had aimed very high knowing that you never get everything you want.

Tragically, he got even less than he could have because of an extraordinary show of belligerence by Washington’s new U.N. envoy, John Bolton, who arrived in August 2005, just weeks ahead of the summit, and proceeded to rip to shreds the catch-all reform plan that had just emerged from months of international negotiation. Bolton demanded hundreds of changes and flabbergasted other nations by stripping from the document specific references to the eight Millennium Development Goals, the heart of a global program to reduce poverty, disease and inequalities.

Eventually the State Department and White House curbed Bolton, and President Bush himself publicly endorsed the goals by name in his speech to world leaders. But by then much damage had been done. Developing nations, moving into the space opened by Bolton’s slash-and-burn approach, renewed attempts to unravel parts of the proposed agreement they didn’t like. The third world was particularly upset by Annan’s proposed U.N. management reforms, seeing these as Western corporate-style intrusions that would strip nations of a lot of their political influence on how the secretariat was run.

There was also hostility to abolishing the discredited Human Rights Commission, which Annan called a “disgrace,” and establishing a leaner, more focused body. In the months that followed the summit, the commission was duly shut down, but the new council created by member states was far weaker and more unwieldy than many had hoped. A year later, Annan was dismayed that the new body, which the United States had refused to join, was repeating the old disastrously one-sided, opinionated behavior by spending its first six months attacking Israel. He criticized the council’s lack of fair play and reminded the members, dominated by developing nations with no taste for reform, that they should be looking at themselves first.

By then the success of developing nations, working through General Assembly committees, in sinking Annan’s most important management reforms allowed critics in the U.S. Congress to call the United Nations unreformable. Over the years Annan had made some management changes, within his limited power. But his supporters say that much more could have been accomplished after the 2005 world summit, had Bolton not poisoned the atmosphere between the global North and South. In the absence of more constructive U.S. diplomacy, developing nations could not be persuaded to drop their opposition to professionalizing management, finance and personnel procedures.

Lack of Decision-Making

The lack of sweeping management changes in Annan’s final years will not help mitigate that part of his legacy where he seemed to be weakest: the exercise of executive authority. Annan, with a strong moral compass and commitment to fairness, often shrank instinctively from acting tough, or even decisively, as a boss. He allowed China to maintain a headquarters-wide lockout of Taiwanese officials and journalists (and the Dalai Lama). He dithered over demanding the resignation of a high commissioner for refugees accused of sexual harassment. He did not sack peacekeeping commanders whose troops abused civilians. He did not dismiss high U.N. officials who singly or collectively bore the blame for not adequately fortifying the organization’s headquarters in Baghdad, which was bombed in August 2003, killing 22, among them the top U.N. envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Annan did not marshal the considerable talents within the United Nations to pre-empt ill-informed assaults on its reputation. When Bush administration officials, bent on invading Iraq, denigrated the work of U.N. weapons inspectors who, it turned out, knew more about Saddam Hussein’s armory or lack of it than American intelligence chiefs, Annan did not push U.N. experts into joining the debate with their unmatched archival evidence.

He did not publicly confront many of the myths about the “oil for food” program before the United Nations’ most malicious critics had been allowed to set the agenda for debate. Earlier, knowing that the Security Council was not dealing with the widespread corruption outside the secretariat’s purview, he did not make this a principled or even a resigning issue, allowing many to assume that U.N. officials, not governments, were condoning malfeasance. (Annan himself was later cleared of corruption but chided for mismanagement by a commission led by Paul Volcker, a former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman.)

It was not until outsiders—including Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and John Ruggie of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, a savvy former American political adviser to the secretary general—convinced Annan that he had to shake up his personal staff and stiffen the United Nations’ public response that the secretary general took action. By then it was mostly too late.

In his last years in office, Annan, under assault from Washington and some leading U.S. news organizations and at odds with much of the developing world, was driven close to physical breakdown. When the worst was over, he never really regained the rhythm and flair of earlier years. But he has left behind a wealth of new ideas for his successors. No other secretary general can make that claim.

Annan’s ‘Five Lessons’

Excerpts from Kofi Annan’s last speech as secretary general of the United Nations (Dec. 12, 2006)

In today’s world, the security of every one of us is linked to that of everyone else.
…No nation can make itself secure by seeking supremacy over all others.... Only by working to make each other secure can we hope to achieve lasting security for ourselves.
...Respect for national sovereignty can no longer be used as a shield by governments intent on massacring their own people, or as an excuse for the rest of us to do nothing when such heinous crimes are committed.

We are not only all responsible for each other’s security. We are also, in some measure, responsible for each other’s welfare. Global solidarity is both necessary and possible.
...Five years ago, the U.N. Millennium Summit adopted...the Millennium Development Goals to be reached by 2015: goals such as halving the proportion of people in the world who don’t have clean water to drink; making sure all girls, as well as boys, receive at least primary education; slashing infant and maternal mortality; and stopping the spread of H.I.V./AIDS.

Both security and development ultimately depend on respect for human rights and the rule of law.
...Foreign investors and a country’s own citizens are more likely to engage in productive activity when their basic rights are protected and they can be confident of fair treatment under the law.

Governments must be accountable for their actions in the international arena, as well as in the domestic one.
...Poor and weak states are easily held to account, because they need foreign assistance. But large and powerful states, whose actions have the greatest impact on others, can be constrained only by their own people, working through their domestic institutions.

We can only do all these things by working together through a multilateral system, and by making the best possible use of the...United Nations.
...Developing countries should have a stronger voice in these bodies, whose decisions can have almost a life-or-death impact on their fate. And it also applies to the U.N. Security Council, whose membership still reflects the reality of 1945, not of today’s world.C

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
13 years 8 months ago
The juxtaposition of the article on “Kofi Annan: Visionary and Victim,” by Barbara Crossette, and “What Distinguishes the Jesuits,” by Avery Dulles, S.J., on the Jesuit charism (1/15) recalls a Jesuit presence at the United Nations in its very early days.

A French Jesuit, Emmanuel S. de Breuvery, joined the secretariat in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs in 1950 as senior economist. His expertise was in the use of resources, of water and energy, an expertise he drew on in working with developing countries. He spent much time advising directly in those countries but was also involved in overall U.N. planning and strategy. For example, he organized the U.N. Conference on New Sources of Energy in Rome in 1961 and an interregional seminar on techniques of petroleum development the following year.

An Indian Jesuit, Jerome D’Souza, was a member of his country’s delegation to the General Assembly in the 1950’s. His presence on the delegation and assignment to the Social Committee was evidence of an openness in his newly independent country and in its diplomacy.

At the time I was on the staff of the National Catholic Welfare Conference Office for United Nations Affairs, which was, incidentally, the first full-time nongovernmental organization office at the United Nations.

The latest from america

Evo Morales said Pope Francis called him to congratulate him on his party’s win after exit polls showed that the former Bolivian president’s top pick, Luis Arce, would win the general election.
Ricardo da Silva, S.J.October 20, 2020
Students at Boston College pray the Examen, while wearing masks and engaging in social distancing. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Vecchio and Emily Egan)
The coronavirus pandemic has caused campus ministries around the country to reassess how to best minister to their students.
Kevin Christopher RoblesOctober 20, 2020
In keeping with Italian law, all of the religious leaders, including Pope Francis, wore a mask except when delivering their speeches, which they did while keeping a distance from those listening.
Sister Campbell, the social justice activist made famous by headlining “Nuns on the Bus” tours, announced she will step down from her post leading Network Lobby this March.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 20, 2020