Kofi Annan helped define the UN, in success and failure

THE secretary-general of the United Nations is sometimes described as a “secular pope”. The position is imbued with moral authority; the holder watches over an enormous flock; but he has no instruments of hard power. The title seemed to fit Kofi Annan, the seventh secretary-general, more than most. Soft-spoken and calm, Mr Annan had the demeanour of a monk. And with popish assuredness he set about trying to establish the UN as the world’s moral arbiter. But he was often frustrated by the countries on the Security Council, which wield the real power.

Mr Annan died on August 18th, aged 80. Many will remember him for drawing attention to the plight of the poor, the sick and the victims of war. He took over the UN in 1997, becoming the first sub-Saharan African to lead the organisation, and served two five-year terms. With his neatly-trimmed goatee and well-tailored suits, he was charming and eloquent. Many remarked on how unflustered he always appeared, despite serving during a tumultuous decade that saw al-Qaeda attack America, and America attack Iraq. He was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2001 (an award he shared with the organisation) for his work to revitalise the UN’s institutions and renew its sense of purpose. For all his efforts, though, these days the UN feels all but marginalised in world affairs.

Mr Annan was an unlikely choice for secretary-general. Born in Ghana, he rose through the ranks of the UN, whereas past leaders had been prominent national politicians or diplomats. His four-year stint as head of peacekeeping operations was marred by bloody failures. The most shameful episode occurred in 1994 in Rwanda, where a small UN force was stopped by Mr Annan from taking action to prevent a genocide that left 800,000 people dead. Blame should be shared, said Mr Annan later. The bloodshed would have been difficult to stop and the world was reluctant to intervene. “All of us must bitterly regret that we did not do more to prevent it,” he said.

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Kofi Annan’s Unaccountable Legacy

During his ten years as Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan was often spoken of as a figure of preternatural calm. He appeared, even to those who worked most closely with him, to be a man devoid of anger, who would never take things personally—a quality reflected in his habit of speaking, when matters of consequence were at stake, in the royal “we.” Annan’s ability to project this unflappable persona—the honest broker between conflicting interests—was generally cited as his great strength. In other, much more profound ways, however, this aloofness was his defining weakness. Prior to becoming Secretary-General, in 1997, Annan served as the head of the U.N.’s peacekeeping department, and in that capacity presided over the ignominious failures of the U.N. missions in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Yet, right up until his death, on Saturday, in Switzerland, he steadfastly refused to acknowledge any meaningful sense of personal or institutional responsibility for these debacles, even as he spoke tirelessly of the world’s desperate need for more responsible leadership—“cool heads and sober judgment,” as he put it in an interview with the BBC, in April, in one of his final public appearances, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday.

Annan’s image of cool was, of course, just that: an image. There is no mistaking the prickly personal pique, for instance, in a cable he sent in 1995, on the eve of the first anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, to another U.N. official. The tone of defensive derision is established in the first sentence: “Every now and then some journalist or human rights advocate remarks, usually on the media, that either they themselves or someone else had warned unamir”—the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Rwanda—“of the impending genocide.” Annan then wrote, “We do not recall any specific reports from Kigali to this effect.” A review of the peacekeeping files, he wrote, had turned up only four cables from Kigali in the months preceding the genocide that mentioned “ethnic tensions as being possibly related—or not related—to specific incidents of violence.” Read more via the New Yorker