Kofi Annan, the seventh secretary general of the United Nations, who died on Saturday at 80, was always complicated. His legacy is as complicated as he was. The first sub-Saharan African to lead the global organization and the first UN staffer to rise through the ranks to a leadership post that had always gone to someone from the outside, he was a reserved yet engaging diplomat. He consistently expressed a powerful level of concern for global poverty and human rights, as well as a human decency that often distinguished him from his imperious predecessors.
Just a week after the United States launched its war against Afghanistan in October 2001, the Nobel Committee announced that the Peace Prize that year would go to Annan, as well as to the UN as an organization. Two months later, he used the occasion of his Nobel acceptance speech to challenge the US exceptionalism inherent in George W. Bush’s war of revenge for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He noted that for most people around the globe, the world did not change on September 11. “The old problems that existed on 10 September, before the attack, are still with us: the elimination of poverty, the fight against HIV and AIDS, the question of the environment, and ensuring we stop exploiting resources the way we’ve been doing,” he said. “All these issues…are still with us and I think we need to focus on them as well.”
He called the 2003 Iraq War illegal, and two years later reflected that view in a major report, recognizing that “every nation that proclaims the rule of law at home must respect it abroad.” He reminded the world of the vital importance of the United Nations in the struggle against imperial wars, reiterating in the report that only the Security Council, not individual governments, has the right to authorize the use of force. He also demanded that nuclear-weapons states take responsibility for disarmament and affirmed that the International Criminal Court was the centerpiece of international justice.
As reports of US torture and mistreatment of detainees and other violations of international law in Iraq were exploding in the media, Annan launched what The Guardian called “a fierce attack on Britain and the US.” Speaking at a 2005 conference to mark the first anniversary of a major terrorist attack in Spain, he urged the UN to appoint a special envoy with the mandate of monitoring governments’ counterterrorism measures to ensure that they conformed with international human-rights law. “Compromising human rights cannot serve the struggle against terrorism,” he said, in an unmistakable reference to the United States. “On the contrary, it facilitates the achievement of the terrorists’ objectives.”
But Kofi, as he was universally known around the United Nations, had been widely known as Washington’s choice for the position. His predecessor, the late Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali, had been targeted by Washington after only one term as secretary general. For the Republican right wing, Boutros-Ghali symbolized a United Nations that the ideologues adamantly opposed (not least because he was an Arab). And for the ostensible multilateralists of the Clinton administration, opposing the Egyptian served certain political interests; then–US ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright campaigned to become secretary of state by organizing a public attack against him. The anti–Boutros-Ghali mobilization focused primarily on the fact that the brilliant but prickly UN chief had dared challenge a particularly egregious US demand that he hide UN-documented evidence of Israeli war crimes committed in Lebanon in 1996. Washington favored Annan because it was understood to still be Africa’s turn for a second secretary general’s term, and because Kofi wasn’t Boutros-Ghali.