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A Eulogy for Kofi Annan: His Achievements and UN’s Challenges
2018.08.24  Friday
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Eunsook Chung

A Eulogy for Kofi Annan: His Achievements and UN’s Challenges 


No. 2018-41 (August 24, 2018)

Dr. Chung Eunsook

Senior Research Fellow, Department of Diplomatic Strategy Studies

The Sejong Institute


Last Saturday (August 18), the 7th UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan passed away in Bern, Switzerland ‘after a short illness.’ As a Ghanaian, he became the first UN secretary-general from both sub-Saharan Africa and the UN system internally. He has been regarded as a leader with discreet charisma. He is a global figure as the whole world watched him travel around the globe leading the largest multilateral organization in the world, the United Nations, during the decade that links two centuries, the 20th and the 21st—from 1997 to 2006. Moreover, he continued to devote his time to mediate global conflicts and contribute to world peace through the Annan Foundation as well as The Elders, the organization of global leaders. He has also headed the mediation efforts for the Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation Process in 2007, assumed Joint Special Envoy for Syria role in 2012, led the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State in 2016-17, and endeavored to support peaceful elections in Nigeria and sustainable agriculture and administration in Africa.

Many global leaders paid tribute to the former secretary-general within and outside the UN system. In his statement on the passing of Kofi Annan, the current UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote, “He provided people everywhere with a space for dialogue, a place for problem-solving and a path to a better world. … His legacy will remain a true inspiration for all of us.” Former U.S. President George W. Bush, who quarreled with Kofi Annan on the U.S. invasion in Iraq in 2003, commented, the “voice of experience will be missed around the world.”

In the same vein, this commentary briefly reflects on Kofi Annan’s life and achievements and moves on to talk about the challenges that the UN faces.

While he attended a university in his home country, Ghana, he finished his Bachelor’s in economics at Minnesota, USA. He completed his postgraduate degree at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. And then on, he began his career in the UN system as a budget officer at World Health Organization (WHO) in 1962. He served in various positions in multiple UN bodies such as Economic Commission for Africa, UN Emergency Force II (UNEF II), UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), and the UN Headquarters in New York. The final post prior to the secretary-general was the under-secretary-general at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations from 1993 to 1996.

Ever since its birth in 1945, the UN has always been put to test regarding its legitimacy and efficiency. However, Annan faced more challenges during the decade at the helm of this colossal international organization. Numerous civil wars and massacres, which began after the end of the Cold war during his predecessor Boutros-Ghali’s term, lingered on; the world underwent significant changes in which global terrorism, crisis on non-proliferation regime, global financial crisis, poverty and underdevelopment in Africa, intensification of climate change emerged as various new diversified security threats. Annan and the UN became the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2001, being acknowledged for their efforts for world peace.

One of his key policies as a secretary-general was the UN reform to enhance efficiency. His major achievements include raising awareness of human rights and rule of law, embracing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), advancing the development of the African continent, enhancing the role of global public sector encompassing the civil society and corporations, and bolstering peacekeeping operations. His idea of ‘Global Compact’ that dealt with corporate social responsibility in 1999 paved the way for the UN Human Rights Council to adopt the ‘UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs)’ in 2011. The success of MDGs (2000-2015) has continued to draft a more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (2016-2030) in 2015. In addition, having begun operation in 2002, the International Criminal Court in The Hague launched investigation and prosecution against individuals who committed serious atrocities such as genocide.

Marking the 60th anniversary of the UN, the special summit in 2005 was the occasion for Kofi Annan to gain member states’ consent to his far-reaching vision as his term drew closer to the end. Kofi Annan’s agenda, despite the member states’ being the actors of the reform, comprised of the following among others: the creation of Peacebuilding Commission’ and Human Rights Council to replace the preexisting Human Rights Commission; the commitment of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”; reaffirmation of the commitment to the MDGs. His article titled “In Larger Freedom: Decision Time at the UN” published at the Foreign Affairs magazine in 2005 and the UN General Assembly report laid out the Ghanaian’s diagnosis of the current times and earnest suggestions regarding ‘development, security, human rights, and UN reform.’

Several cases bespeak his diplomatic skills before and after he assumed the highest post in the UN system. His endeavors helped in: establishing a democratic government in Nigeria in 1998; bridging the differences on the arms inspection and other agendas between Iraq and the UN Security Council in 1988; intervening in the successful process of independence of Timor-Leste in 1999; mediating the withdrawal of Israeli army and the Hezbollah standoff in 2000 and 2006; and taking the Bakassi Peninsula dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria to the International Court of Justice, among others.

Nevertheless, just as any other individual, Kofi Annan has painful memories as a human being and an official in an international organization. While he served as the under-secretary-general at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Rwandan genocide (1994, claimed more than 800,000 lives) and Srebrenica massacre (1995, more than 8,000 people killed) occurred. And the scandal concerning the ‘Oil-for-Food’ program (1996-2003) was exposed in 2005, during his second term. The former cases that marked the failure of the UN hugely affected Annan’s views on global strategy. The emergence of concepts such as ‘R2P’ and ‘individual sovereignty’ in the international community and the need for an alternative to the UN Security Council after the frustration surrounding the council’s division, procrastination, and lack of support for member states are some results of the lessons learned. Kofi Annan reminisced these agonizing cases several times. The latter case of scandal erupted during the secretary-general’s second term—the program was designed for Iraq to purchase goods related to livelihood such as foodstuff in return for the sales of oil in times of sanctions. An investigation reported that Kofi Annan’s son was related to a concerned Swiss firm. Annan recalled this as the biggest test as the leader of the world-leading international organization as well as a father. Nonetheless, he was able to wrap up his career as one of the most popular secretary-general thanks to numerous accomplishments.

As early as 1952, the first UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie described the post as “the most impossible job on the earth” when he left the post. He indicated the realistic limits and restraints under an idealistic goal. As the world pays tribute to Annan’s decease in August 2018, it should strive to raise the UN’s legitimacy, efficiency, and above all, relevance, embracing Annan’s achievements and failures as well.

This signifies the resolution to the war in Syria, persecution of Rohingya refugees, the North Korean nuclear crisis—North Korea’s return to the nuclear non-proliferation regime—, etc. It also specifies a united political determination for global peace and security among permanent members of the UN Security Council such as the U.S., China, and Russia, and the UN member states’ support for UN multilateralism. Should the member states, especially the veto powers, dither in making a progress, the international order will again be defined in terms of the unstable great power relations.