Kofi Annan, 1938–2018
The U.N. leader who pushed for humanitarian intervention
Kofi Annan’s path to power in the United Nations passed through some of the worst massacres of our age. As head of the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations, he was witness to the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 and of Muslims in Bosnia in 1995—both acts of ethnic cleansing carried out right before the eyes of ineffectual U.N. peacekeepers. After being chosen as secretary-general—the first black African to serve in that role—Annan tried forcefully to come to terms with the legacy of those failings, commissioning extensive fact-finding reports and building a more muscular U.N. “He knew,” the U.S. diplomat Samantha Power wrote, “that his name would appear in the history books behind the two defining genocidal crimes of the second half of the 20th century.” His efforts to assure that wouldn’t happen again and to create “a new norm of humanitarian intervention” were rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.
Born to an aristocratic family on the Gold Coast, which later became the nation of Ghana, Annan studied at Macalester College in Minnesota, in Geneva, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He rose through the ranks at the United Nations to oversee “a record expansion of peacekeeping [forces] to 75,000 troops in 19 missions,” said The Washington Post. His ascent was marred by the deaths of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica and of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, some of them murdered after being abandoned by peacekeepers with whom they had taken shelter.
When Annan was made secretary-general in 2001, the U.N. rank and file cheered “because one of their own had made it to the top,” said The Guardian. But he was hamstrung by the limits of his authority. He did not control the sovereign governments that made up his organization, said NewYorker.com, and he was often reduced to lobbying for a seal of approval from the U.N. Security Council. Annan tried to get the international community to act in concert, but repeatedly saw them go their own way, as the U.S. did in Iraq—an invasion that Annan called illegal. Annan’s most notable display of integrity may have been in refusing to raise false hopes that the U.N. could singlehandedly bring calm to the world’s conflict zones. Having seen the limits of the U.N.’s power, Annan “resisted the temptation to make any more of the false promises of protection that the U.N. had repeatedly betrayed.”