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Kofi Annan’s moral prestige story


HOW do we explain the former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan’s enduring moral prestige?

The puzzle is that it has survived failures, both his own and those of the institution he served for 50 years.

Personal charisma is only part of the story. In addition to his charm, of which there is plenty, there is the authority that comes from experience.


Few people have spent so much time around negotiating tables with thugs, warlords and dictators, he has made himself the world’s emissary to the dark side.

Annan managed to keep his reputation in intact while rising up through nether regions of the UN bureaucracy; human resources and budgeting where nepotism and mismanagement were notorious.

This ascent demands a polite but ruthless care of his own reputation together with an ability to distance himself from trouble.

Along the way he deeply internalised the moral rhetoric of the institution and never let its dreary reality drain away his idealism.

Once elevated through American support to the UN’s highest office in 1996, he displayed unsuspected flair and managed to articulate in every nuanced but committed utterance the still unspent hopes that survived inside the institution itself.

When he accepted the Nobel Prize awarded jointly to him and the UN in 2001, he seemed to many the most complete incarnation of its ideals of any secretary-general who ever lived.

If prestige is to last, it must be burnished with accomplishment and much happened on his watch — the UN Global compact, the Millennium Development Goals, the Global Aids Fund, the International Criminal Court, the “responsibility to protect” doctrine for which we praise him because he saved them benevolent encouragement and maximum publicity.

Like no secretary-general before him, Annan understood modern media and used the power of his own celebrity to raise the visibility of his institution.

He also understood that globalisation was empowering new actors besides sovereign states and he was shrewd enough to realise that the UN had to stop being an intergovernmental organisation alone, but must establish partnerships with corporations, NGOs.

He understood that while his authority came from the member states who pay the bills and cast votes, his moral prestige came from “we the peoples” the millions of ordinary people whose faith in the UN had managed to survive serial disillusion.

Annan was the most successful secretary-general since Dag Hammerskjold in leveraging the world’s hopes into personal moral influence.

However, there remains a mystery about his prestige. Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and Vaclav Havel acquired theirs by standing up to tyrants, Kofi Annan acquired his by talking to them.

Prestige acquired in this manner is bound to be ambiguous and to leave a complex legacy.

In February 1988, he flew to Baghdad and persuaded Saddam Hussein to let the UN weapon inspectors back in. He was greeted as a hero when he returned and the world fell under his spell.

Modest and unassuming as he was, he became prone to believing his own magic. Annan remarked that his actions as secretary-general were coming to have more influence than the Security Council.

In fact, it was the imminent threat of the United State’s air strikes as much as Annan’s good offices, that concentrated Saddam’s mind and in any event, war was only delayed not forestalled.

His August 2012 mission to Syria was a shuttle diplomacy that provided US, Russia and China with an alibi for doing nothing. When he abandoned his Syria mission, he observed that no mediator succeeds if he wants peace more than the protagonists.

Annan’s enduring authority is also perplexing because his past will not leave him in peace. In her book Chasing The Flame Samantha Power says: “His name would appear in history books besides the two defining genocidal crimes of the second half of the 20th century, Rwanda and Srebrenica.”

In January 1994, the UN force commander in Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire sent a fax to the UN headquarters seeking Annan’s authorisation for military action to arrest prospective génocidaires. Annan turned Dallaire down.

Neither he nor the secretary-general at the time Boutros Boutros Ghali communicated Dallaire’s request for action to the Security Council.

Dallaire and other close observers of the Rwanda catastrophe believe that preventive military action by the UN at that point might have averted the horrendous events that unfolded months later in April, May and June leaving 800 000 people dead.

The same dismaying faith in the deterrent force of good intentions fatally shaped UN policy over the safe havens in Bosnia.

Annan was in charge of UN peacekeeping in this period and watched helplessly as governments in the Security Council drafted mandated and deployed troops that could not possibly protect the safe havens if they came under determined attack.

To his credit, Annan stood his ground. He told the Security Council that the safe havens could not be protected with anything less than 52 000 troops.

It ignored the advice leaving civilians for a second time to be protected by presence rather than forces authorised and willing to fight.

Eight thousand civilians in Grebrenica paid with their lives for this fatal illusion about the force of the UN’s moral prestige.

Annan regrets not going public with his doubts and adds that the UN secretariat’s idea of public relations was “archaic”.

In his final two years as secretary-general, Annan fought to salvage his reputation. He took responsibility for the abject management failures and outright thievery that had characterised the Oil for Food programme and sought to regain the political initiative by launching a frenetic attempt to reform the institution.

He wanted to enlarge the Security Council, create a peace-building commission and replace the discredited Human Rights Commission with a Human Rights Council.

The effort was worthy, but the moment for reform had passed. Annan discovered that his own prestige was too depleted to achieve significant reform.

When you recall how Annan’s secretary-generalship ended, you begin to understand his hunger to remain in the public eye, to mediate to political settlement in Kenya following disputed elections in 2008 and finally to find peace in Syria.

These quests for peace are something more than an experienced mediator’s desire to stay busy. In some deep way, given what he has seen, lived through and taken responsibility for, they can be taken as a conscientious man’s quest for redemption.

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