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Annan focused on human element

The U.N. chief, known as an idealist, would like to be remembered for his work to fight genocide and poverty.

December 31, 2006|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General Kofi Annan says that he will keep working until midnight tonight, when his 10-year tenure as the world's top diplomat officially ends. But he has already begun reflecting on his achievements, frustrations and failures as a leader who embodies the world's ideals, and as a man who often could not escape his limitations to make those ideals a reality.

Although it is sometimes debated whether Annan, 68, was more "secretary" or "general," he was mostly an idealist. He would like to be remembered, he said this month, as the leader who pushed the world to agree to intervene to stop genocides, and to try to cut poverty in half. He sought to make the U.N. about people, not just geopolitics.

But he was often overwhelmed by the details of managing a gargantuan organization that kept the peace in 18 countries and once ran the entire economy of Iraq. His management lapses were blamed for the subversion of the $64-billion oil-for-food program in Iraq, as well as a wave of corruption scandals and sexual exploitation by peacekeepers under his watch.

Recognizing the need to update the 60-year-old institution, Annan proposed sweeping reforms that would make the U.N. better able to deal with the new threats and challenges of the 21st century. But he was stymied by a group of developing countries, which saw the changes as a loss of power, and by the U.S., which had its own vision of how to revamp the world body.

At a Security Council luncheon six weeks after he launched his reform plan, Annan jokingly apologized for not yet having finished the reorganization. Russian Ambassador Sergei V. Lavrov piped up and said, "Mr. Secretary-General, what are you complaining about? You have had more time than God!" Annan responded, "You are right, but God started with one great advantage -- with a clean canvas, and without a Security Council and a General Assembly."

Annan, the son of a chieftain from Ghana, was christened "Anthony" but was known by the name Kofi, which means "born on Friday." He joined the bottom ranks of the U.N. in 1962 and didn't plan to stay longer than four years, he said. But he quietly rose through the institution to head the peacekeeping department. In December 1996, the Clinton administration pushed him as its candidate to replace Boutros-Boutros Ghali, the outspoken Egyptian secretary-general it deemed a liability to U.S. interests.

Annan was chosen because he was an African who knew the U.N. system, and had proved that he was pragmatic and effective and could work with the United States when he oversaw peacekeepers in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Haiti. But most important, he did not have a political agenda or an overweening ego that could put him in conflict with the U.S. By the end of Annan's decade, however, he grew to be a quiet but compelling challenger to Washington.

First, a honeymoon

Annan's first five years in the wood-paneled office at the top of the shimmering U.N. headquarters were a honeymoon of sorts. Annan's manner is gentle, and nonconfrontational, and he is so soft-spoken that he can hardly be heard without a microphone. When perturbed, his voice gets lower, not louder. When anxious, he clenches his jaw and twists his large gold ring. That demeanor gave him a kind of regal aloofness, and a gracious yet distant charm that served him well as a nonpartisan mediator, but sometimes made him seem to lack fire.

He and his Swedish wife, Nane, the elegant niece of Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg, traveled around the U.S. and the world, giving a human face to an otherwise impersonal institution and imparting Annan's belief that every person has equal rights, and that a government's duty is to protect them.

Annan introduced the doctrine of "humanitarian intervention" -- that borders should not shield governments that cannot or will not protect their own people. The idea was born in part of his feelings of impotence and guilt as the head of peacekeeping during massacres in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica and in Rwanda that the U.N. did little to stop. Although some countries initially resisted, in 2005, 191 leaders endorsed "the responsibility to protect," something Annan considers one of his top achievements.

For championing human rights and development, and "for bringing new life to the organization," Annan and the U.N. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. He became known as "a diplomatic rock star," and the spotlight seemed to shine on the U.N. as a central stage in world affairs.

But the second half of his tenure would be much darker.

Sept. 11

The Sept. 11 attacks made the Bush administration more determined to strengthen national security -- but, Annan later argued, at the expense of multilateralism and human rights. In 2002, President Bush challenged the Security Council to confront Iraq or stand aside, and while the U.S. attempted for six months to gain the U.N.'s stamp of legitimacy for its long-planned invasion, it ended up going into Iraq without it.

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