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Kofi Annan, a man who was committed to serving humanity

Africa

Kofi Annan, a man who was committed to serving humanity

MONDAY AUGUST 20 2018

Kofi Annan, a man who was committed to serving humanity

Ramesh Thakur, an emeritus professor at the Australian National University, is a former UN Assistant Secretary-General who was the principal writer of Kofi Annan’s second UN reform report in 2002. COURTESY PHOTO

In Summary

  • The grandson of tribal chiefs and son of a provincial governor in the British colony of Gold Coast (now Ghana), Annan blended an aristocratic style of leadership with soft-spoken personal charm, empathy, intellectual gravitas, and sartorial elegance.
  • His years as SG (1997-2006) were marked by political judgment, tact, and integrity.
  • An eloquent testament to the quality of his ten-year tenure at the helm is the lasting loyalty, bordering on devotion, he inspired in the immensely talented group of senior advisers he assembled.
By Ramesh Thakur

Kofi Annan deserves to be remembered as a near-exemplary United Nations secretary-general (SG). Great chief executives need a guiding vision for the exercise of authority, and all the more so when that authority is international civil authority. Annan’s success was based on his ability to combine pragmatism and humility with an enduring vision of human progress and solidarity.

This fusion of vision and character was perhaps best encapsulated in the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), which mapped an ambitious set of priorities for the UN. In addition, animated by an abiding humanism and faithful to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the UN Charter, Annan stretched the executive authority of the organization through creative interpretations of the Charter and a charismatic personality to secure the adoption of the exciting, but challenging, “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) principle.

The grandson of tribal chiefs and son of a provincial governor in the British colony of Gold Coast (now Ghana), Annan blended an aristocratic style of leadership with soft-spoken personal charm, empathy, intellectual gravitas, and sartorial elegance. His years as SG (1997-2006) were marked by political judgment, tact, and integrity. An eloquent testament to the quality of his ten-year tenure at the helm is the lasting loyalty, bordering on devotion, he inspired in the immensely talented group of senior advisers he assembled.

The world witnessed many profound changes during those turbulent years. Annan oversaw a massive expansion in UN peace operations, in response to growing demands and expectations, but many were dogged by charges of ineffectiveness, financial corruption, and sexual exploitation.

A central challenge with which Annan had to contend, with mixed success, was how to combine the UN’s unique legitimacy with the Security Council as the world’s geopolitical cockpit. When the big powers were united, he could but obey. When they were at one another’s throat over clashing vital interests, he could do little. But when the international community was bitterly divided, he tried to forge agreement by identifying common interests and nudging member states toward face-saving compromises.

Annan’s approach to UN reform was instructive. Identify the big global issues that require UN engagement, he told me. Then ignore issues where states will not agree to common action, as well as those where they can agree on their own because of shared priorities. He saw no point in expending scarce political capital in either case.

Instead, he focused on the big issues where action by member states could be pushed beyond the tipping point by investing the prestige and authority of the SG in the cause. Annan succeeded as SG through the skills of soft leadership: the elusive ability to make others connect emotionally and intellectually to a larger cause that transcended their immediate self-interest.

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