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Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan Left a Legacy of a More Interventionist United Nations

The Ghanian diplomat, who died this past weekend, reshaped the mission of the U.N. during a lifelong career as a civil servant

Kofi Annan, the seventh secretary-general of the United Nations, passed away this weekend. (AP Images)
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Over the weekend, Kofi Annan, who served as the seventh secretary-general of the United Nations, died at the age of 80, according to a statement from his foundation.

Annan, born in Ghana in 1938, was the first leader of the United Nations elected from the organization's staff. Trained as an economist, he began his work at the U.N. in 1962 as a World Health Organization budget officer. In 1980, he moved to the U.N. refugee agency, reports James Doubek at NPR. In 1993, he was tapped to head peacekeeping operations. He faced some of the U.N.’s most complex problems, including the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide and war in Somalia. In 1997 he became the first black African chosen for the role of secretary-general, and served two five-year terms.

His tenure included the beginning of the war on terror, which came with deep divisions over the Iraq War, reports Alan Cowell at The New York Times. Annan’s legacy is tied to these military and political crises, though he had little to no control over the U.N. Security Council, which handles such matters. Instead, his legacy—or at least what he hoped would be his legacy—was turning the U.N. into the world’s moral conscience and arbiter. Cowell reports that Annan reshaped the U.N.’s institutions and developed its “norm of humanitarian intervention.”

Annan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 for combatting terrorism, prioritizing human rights, and helping to establish the Global AIDS and Health Fund. During his acceptance speech, he outlined the U.N.'s goals for the 21st century. “Only in a world that is rid of poverty can all men and women make the most of their abilities," he said. "Only where individual rights are respected can differences be channeled politically and resolved peacefully. Only in a democratic environment, based on respect for diversity and dialogue, can individual self-expression and self-government be secured, and freedom of association be upheld.”

But for all his good intentions, Annan's legacy is not without controversy. Timothy Longman at The Washington Post reports that Annan was in charge of peacekeeping in 1994 when a crisis in Rwanda developed into genocide. Annan was faulted for not heeding warning signs of violence and failing to intervene. He later wrote that he regretted his lack of leadership during the genocide. He also lamented his inability to stop the war in Bosnia, and decided on a more aggressive response. Military intervention was a controversial move, since the NATO bombing didn't have the backing of the U.N. Security Council.

Stanley Meisler at The Washington Post reports that these experiences helped Annan craft a new U.N. policy, overturning the notion that the group should avoid interfering in the affairs of other nations. When ethnic cleansing, genocide or attacks on civilians were involved, he argued, the U.N. had a responsibility to step in. A notable example of this came in 2011 with the bombing of Libya to end the regime of dictator Moammar Gaddafi.

Annan would likely be held in the same esteem as Dag Hammar­skjold, the U.N.’s second secretary-general and considered by many to be its finest, if he hadn’t run up against the Bush administration in his second term, former undersecretary general Brian Urquhart tells The Washington Post. As the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq, Annan declared the war "illegal." That led to strained relations with the U.S. for the remainder of his term. That last term was also marred by an investigation into the “oil-for-food corruption scandal” that occurred under Annan’s watch.

After leaving the U.N., Annan spent his final decade working with peace, development and human rights groups and occasionally stepping in as a diplomat and negotiator.

“Kofi Annan was a guiding force for good,” current secretary-general António Guterres writes in a statement. “He provided people everywhere with a space for dialogue, a place for problem-solving and a path to a better world. In these turbulent and trying times, he never stopped working to give life to the values of the United Nations Charter. His legacy will remain a true inspiration for all of us.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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