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Former UN chief and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kofi Annan was ‘a guiding force for good’

Timothy A. Clary, AFP | Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan holds a press conference following a speech to the General Assembly on March 21, 2005, in which he called on world leaders to adopt his proposals for wide-ranging reforms at the UN.

Former UN secretary general and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kofi Annan died Saturday in Switzerland at the age of 80 after a short illness. His calm dignity and moral rectitude helped guide the UN through some of its thorniest recent challenges.


The Kofi Annan Foundation announced his death in a tweet and a subsequent statement, saying: "Wherever there was suffering or need, he reached out and touched many people with his deep compassion and empathy.”

"Kofi Annan was a guiding force for good," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Twitter upon hearing of his passing.

"In these turbulent and trying times, his legacy as a global champion for peace will remain a true inspiration for us all,” Guterres added.

A rising star

Born in Kumasi, Ghana on April 8, 1938, Annan graduated from the Mfantsipim Methodist high school in 1957, the same year that what was then known as the Gold Coast gained independence from Britain and renamed Ghana. He finished his undergraduate work in economics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1961.

He attended the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and first joined the UN in 1962 as a budget officer for the World Health Organization. In 1965 Annan married Nigerian national Titi Alakija and had a daughter, Ama, and a son, Kojo. The couple separated in the 1970s.

He returned to the United States in 1971 and in 1972 graduated with a degree from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Annan served as Ghana’s director of tourism for two years but in 1980 he was appointed head of personnel for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. In 1984 he married Swedish lawyer Nane Lagergren.

He was named the UN assistant secretary general in human resources management and security coordinator in 1987 before being appointed assistant secretary general for peacekeeping operations in 1993.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, he facilitated the repatriation of more than 900 international staff and other non-Iraqi nationals as well as the release of Western hostages in Iraq. He also led the initial negotiations with Baghdad for the sale of oil in exchange for humanitarian relief.

Annan also served as special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, where he oversaw a transition from UN protective forces to NATO-led troops in Bosnia.

But UN peacekeeping operations also faced two of its greatest failures during his tenure: the Rwanda genocide in 1994 and the massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995. In both cases the UN deployed troops but they failed to save the lives of the civilians they were mandated to protect.

Annan apologized for the failures but ignored calls from US Republican lawmakers to resign. After he became secretary general, he called for UN reports on those two debacles and they were highly critical of his management.

The world's conscience

In 1997 at the age of 59 Annan became the 7th secretary general of the United Nations, the first African to serve in the role and the first to be promoted from within.

The following year, Annan helped ease the transition to civilian rule in Nigeria and visited Iraq to try to resolve its impasse with the Security Council over compliance with weapons inspections and other matters. The effort helped avoid an outbreak of hostilities that seemed imminent at the time.

In 1999 he was deeply involved in the process by which East Timor gained independence from Indonesia and started the "Global Compact" initiative, which has grown into the world's largest effort to promote corporate social responsibility.

The Alfred Nobel Committee awarded the 2001 Peace Prize jointly to Annan and the United Nations "for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world" and praised Annan for “bringing new life to the organization”.

Nobel Media AB 2018

During his tenure at the helm of the United Nations, Annan presided over one of the most turbulent periods in the organization’s history. After the world united following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, deep divides emerged over the US invasion of Iraq and the UN was to be the scene of a key moment in the run-up to war.

Then US secretary of state Colin Powell delivered a 2003 speech at the UN laying out the Bush administration’s rationale for an invasion of Iraq, a rationale that was later revealed to be based on faulty intelligence.

Annan has said it was the failure to prevent war in Iraq that he feels was his greatest failing as UN chief.

"I think that my darkest moment was the Iraq war, and the fact that we could not stop it," Annan said in a February 2013 interview with TIME magazine.

"I worked very hard – I was working the phone, talking to leaders around the world. The US did not have the support in the Security Council," Annan recalled in the videotaped interview posted on The Kofi Annan Foundation's website.

"So they decided to go without the council. But I think the council was right in not sanctioning the war," he said.

Although the UN could not halt the invasion, he said, it could at least preserve its own standing by opposing it. And history has shown this was the right move.

"Could you imagine if the UN had endorsed the war in Iraq, what our reputation would be like?” he asked.

“Although at that point, President [George W.] Bush said the UN was headed toward irrelevance, because we had not supported the war. But now we know better."

As secretary general, Annan forged a doctrine dubbed the "Responsibility to Protect", calling on countries to commit - at least in principle - to halting genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

Annan also sought to strengthen the UN's management, coherence and accountability, efforts that required huge investments in training and technology, a new whistleblower policy and financial disclosure requirements.

Annan's uncontested election to a second term was unprecedented, reflecting the overwhelming support he enjoyed from both rich and poor countries. With a voice dripping with gravitas and an almost preternatural ability to appear calmly resolute under the most trying circumstances, he came to symbolize the world's conscience and moral rectitude wherever he went.

Timothy Wirth, president of Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation, observed that there was "a saint-like sense about him".

In 2005, Annan succeeded in establishing the Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council. But later that year the UN faced almost daily attacks over allegations of corruption at its oil-for-food program in Iraq, bribery by UN purchasing officials and widespread sex abuse by UN peacekeepers - an issue that would only explode in the public consciousness after he left office.

It also emerged that Annan's son, Kojo, had not disclosed payments he received from his employer, which had a $10 million-a-year contract to monitor humanitarian aid under the oil-for-food program. The company paid at least $300,000 to Kojo so he would not work for competitors after he left.

An independent report criticized the secretary general for being too complacent, saying he should have done more to investigate matters, even if he was not involved with the awarding of the contract.

World leaders agreed to create an internal UN ethics office, but a major overhaul of the UN's outdated management practices and operating procedures was left to Annan's successor, Ban Ki-moon.

Before leaving office, Annan helped secure a truce between Israel and Hezbollah and mediated a settlement of a dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi peninsula.

Annan left the UN in 2006 and a year later established the Kofi Annan Foundation in Geneva, whose stated goal is to “overcome threats to peace, development and human rights”.

At a farewell news conference, Annan listed as his top achievements the promotion of human rights, fighting to close the gap between extreme poverty and immense wealth, and the UN campaign to fight infectious diseases like AIDS.

When he departed from the United Nations, he left behind a global organization far more aggressively engaged in peacekeeping and fighting poverty, setting the framework for the UN's 21st-century response to mass atrocities and its emphasis on human rights and development.

A 'rock star of diplomacy'

Retiring from the UN did not mean Annan began taking it easy, however. He continued to crisscross the globe on special missions, such as brokering a 2007 peace in Kenya, where election violence had killed more than 1,000 people.

In 2012 he was appointed as joint special representative for Syria by the UN and the Arab League. Annan won international backing for a six-point plan for peace and the UN deployed a 300-member observer force to monitor a ceasefire, but peace never took hold and Annan was unable to surmount the bitter stalemate among Security Council powers. He resigned in frustration seven months into the job as the civil war raged on.

Annan was also the chief architect of what became known as the Millennium Development Goals, and played a central role in creating the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria as well as the UN's first counter-terrorism strategy.

He was also appointed a chair of The Elders, an independent group dedicated to restoring peace and defending human rights founded by Nelson Mandela, eventually succeeding Desmond Tutu as its chairman.

Former US ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke once called Annan "an international rock star of diplomacy".

>> Annan tells FRANCE 24 the ‘time has come’ for a woman to lead the UN

Upon his 2016 visit to Ghana to serve as keynote speaker at the Forests for the Future conference, Annan sat down with FRANCE 24's Katerina Vittozzi to discuss deforestation and an issue close to his heart, reforms at the UN Security Council.

"The structure of the Council today is based on geopolitical realities of 1945,” he said. “The world has changed and the UN has to change and adapt and move along with it. It is not justifiable that the four European countries on the Council have 80 percent of the voting capacity, and all the emerging countries - from India to Brazil and South Africa - have nothing.”

“If they do not change and make space for them, sooner or later the primacy of the Council will be challenged," he predicted.

In 2017, his foundation's biggest projects included the promotion of fair, peaceful elections; work with Myanmar's government to improve life in troubled Rakhine state; and battling violent extremism by enlisting young people to help.

He also remained a vocal commentator on troubles like the global refugee crisis; promoted good governance, anti-corruption measures and sustainable agriculture in Africa; and pushed efforts in the fight against illegal drug trafficking.

In his memoir, Annan recognized the costs of taking on the world's top diplomatic job, joking that "SG"  short for secretary-general  also signified "scapegoat" around UN headquarters.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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