The Global State of Democracy,” Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation during Global State of Democracy. 29 November 2017. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

August 18, 2018; New York Times

Kofi Annan, the first sub-Saharan African to become secretary general of the United Nations (UN), serving two five-year terms as the world’s seventh secretary general from 1997 through 2006, died last Saturday in Bern, Switzerland. He was 80.

In the United States, we tend not to pay a lot of attention to the UN, but as Alan Cowell writes in the New York Times, Annan is widely “credited with revitalizing the United Nations’ institutions.” If your nonprofit seeks to address one or more of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), then Annan, who helped shepherd through the UN the millennium development goals that preceded the SDGs, has played an important role in your work.

Annan’s record is hardly perfect. Philip Gourevitch, writing in the New Yorker, derides Annan’s governing style as a “curious mixture of grandiosity and unaccountability.” One shortcoming in office: While secretary general, the UN managed a humanitarian aid program that allowed Iraq (before the US invasion of 2003) to sell oil in exchange for food in a way that fostered corrupt contracting. While Annan was cleared of wrongdoing, his contracting management was roundly criticized.

A more serious shortfall occurred, however, before Annan became secretary general, when he directed UN peacekeeping operations in Rwanda at the time of the genocide of the Tutsi minority. As Rwanda scholar Timothy Longman writes, in that role, “Annan resisted efforts to strengthen [the UN’s] mandate and allow it to take a more active role in protecting lives.” Longman adds that Annan’s “failure in the face of the Rwandan genocide could be viewed as one black mark on an otherwise impressive record—yet a failure that contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths is difficult to overlook.” A decade afterward, Annan conceded at a memorial conference in Rwanda “that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support.”

Nonetheless, Annan’s 10 years of directing the UN did result in two important accomplishments that shape the UN to this day. First, haunted by Rwanda, “Annan sought to learn from his own failures,” Longman notes. This led Annan to develop what has been called the “Kofi doctrine,” which says that the rights of sovereignty are not absolute and gives the UN the moral authority—if not always the physical ability—to intervene on behalf of the rights of “we, the peoples,” as outlined in the UN charter. As Longman writes, “As secretary general, Annan played an important role in developing and promoting the ‘Responsibility to Protect’—the idea that the international community has a responsibility to intervene to prevent massive loss of human life.”

Annan’s second major accomplishment is one that Annan himself described as his greatest achievement—namely, the Millennium Development Goals “which—for the first time—set global targets on issues such as poverty and child mortality.” To mark the millennium, Annan issued the report We the Peoples: The Role of the UN in the 21st Century, which, notes Hella Pick in the Guardian, “called on member states to commit themselves to an action plan to end poverty, improve education, and reduce HIV/AIDS.”

The final MDG Report, issued by the UN in 2015, found that the 15-year effort, while not achieving every stated goal, had been highly successful. For example, the number of people living in “extreme poverty” (defined as earning less than $1.25 a day) fell from 1.926 billion to 836 million, exceeding the 50-percent reduction target. Other gains included reduced maternal and infant mortality, greatly improved access to healthy food and clean water, major gains against HIV/AIDS and other diseases, and large increases in access to primary school education.

In 2001, Kofi Annan, buttressed in large measure by the UN’s adoption of the millennium development goals the year before, became the first living secretary general to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (Dag Hammarskjöld was awarded the prize in 1961 posthumously.) In his Nobel address, Annan said:

In this new century, we must start from the understanding that peace belongs not only to states or peoples, but to each and every member of those communities. The sovereignty of States must no longer be used as a shield for gross violations of human rights.…From this vision of the role of the United Nations in the next century flow three key priorities for the future: eradicating poverty, preventing conflict, and promoting democracy. Only in a world that is rid of poverty can all men and women make the most of their abilities. 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.

After departing the UN, Annan formed the eponymous Kofi Annan Foundation, which has focused on a number of areas. These include providing mediation and crisis resolution assistance, supporting electoral integrity, combatting hunger, promoting drug policy reform, and fostering youth leadership.—Steve Dubb