News of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan‘s death on August 18 at the age of 80 following a short illness stunned many in the diplomatic community, particularly by those who saw the Nobel Peace Prize winner and lifelong UN bureaucrat as the personification of a calm political operator who spent the majority of his nine years as the chief administrative officer of the United Nations to assert the UN’s legal and moral authority on international affairs.
As the body’s seventh Secretary-General from 1997 to 2006, the Ghana-born Annan was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with the United Nations in 2001 “for their work for a better organised and more peaceful world”. Annan’s landmark proposal to “Millennium Development Goals” that were aimed at eradicating extreme poverty, combatting malaria and HIV/AIDS, reducing child mortality, and improving maternal health; all of which were widely praised as examples of projects where a UN Secretary-General used the office’s moral authority to initiate projects that exemplified the lofty humanitarian goals that the United Nation had for so long championed.
Annan, however, ultimately left a legacy that was as much mired in controversy as it was in triumph. He was steadfast in his belief that the UN could not and should not be blamed for its failure to live up to its own promises but should be publicly praised and given full credit for whatever success, no matter how small or large came about due to UN oversight.
Annan refused – and earned rightful praise – for not making any false promises of protection under the guise of peacekeeping following the genocides in Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Darfur. After having served as the head of the UN’s peacekeeping department when mass human rights atrocities were being carried out on a daily basis in places such as Somalia, Chechnya, and the Balkans, Annan was lauded by his peers for recognising the UN’s inherent limitations as a mediator in areas of active conflict.
He was the last Secretary-General to command, and often seek, the international headlines, which left Annan prone to regularly contradicting himself when it came to his own sense of self-aggrandisement for the UN’s successes, but also a distinct sense of collective, rather than personal, responsibility for when the UN was incapable of halting major global catastrophes – none more so than in the run-up to the US’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. Annan’s own attempts to re-cast the UN as an international legal authority left the decision of the George W. Bush administration to invade Iraq solely in the hands of the United Nations’ Security Council, of which the US is a sitting, veto-wielding member.
Despite the falsified evidence, the United States exercised its authority in the Security Council and Annan’s United Nations was largely left on the sidelines as the invasion was ultimately launched and led to a generation of bloody sectarian conflict across the Middle East.
Annan’s legacy for the future generation of UN bureaucrats will includes his contributions to spearheading projects that contribute to the betterment of people’s lives in areas of the world where education and healthcare lag behind, but his will also be a cautionary tale as Annan’s legacy also proves that it is necessary for the UN Secretary-General to act decisively and take responsibility for both the positive and negative end results of UN-related initiatives.