Kofi Annan: the hopeful peacemaker

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The first United Nations Secretary-General from sub-Saharan Africa and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Kofi Annan, who passed away this month at the age of 80, will be mainly remembered for his successful career as an international diplomat, a humanist, and a peace-builder. But, in many ways, his legacy is also defined by his failures and the role they had in shaping his tireless efforts towards a world that would put human rights above politics.

He was Undersecretary-General in charge of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations when the genocide in Rwanda happened in 1994, with the slaughter of approximately 800,000 people. Annan accepted his share of responsibility and expressed deep regret and remorse that the United Nations failed to prevent and to take necessary action to stop this shocking humanitarian catastrophe, although acknowledging that the peace forces were neither mandated nor equipped for the required action at the time. In a speech marking the 10th anniversary of the genocide, he recognized that if the UN, governments and the international media had paid more attention to the signs of disaster unfolding, and taken timely action, the massacres could have been averted. “The international community is guilty of sins of omission. I myself, as head of the UN’s peacekeeping department at the time, pressed dozens of countries for troops. I believed at that time that I was doing my best. But I realized after the genocide that there was more than I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support.”[1]

In 1995, just a year after Rwanda, the UN system failed again at responding adequately to avoid and stop the genocide in Bosnia. Around 8,000 Bosnians Muslims were killed by Bosnian Serb Forces in the Srebrenica massacre, the worst on European soil since the Second World War.

These painful failures have influenced much of his thinking and many of his later actions during his role as UN’s Secretary General, from 1997 to 2006. Kofi Annan joined the many voices that questioned the role of the international community in protecting civilian populations and advocated for the right to intervene when necessary. For the world to act collectively against genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, it would require a review of the traditional principle of sovereignty and noninterference in national matters. In Annan’s report “We the peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century”, in 2000, he laid out the question: “I accept that the principles of sovereignty and noninterference provide vital protection for small and weak states. But if humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable violation of sovereignty, how should we react to situations such as those we have witnessed in Rwanda or Srebrenica blatant and systematic violations of human rights that offend all the precepts on which our common condition of human beings?” [2]

The solution came with the new understanding of state sovereignty as a conditional right that cannot overlap individual rights and with the development of an international norm that allows intervention to protect civilians against gross and systematic violations of human rights perpetrated in or by a sovereign State. In 2006, following a World Summit, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted the Resolution 1674, affirming the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and committing the Security Council to action to protect civilians in armed conflicts. This became known as the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine or R2P.

Along with the Millennium Development Goals which — for the first time — set global targets on issues such as poverty and child mortality, the introduction of the R2P doctrine in the international human rights framework was one of the Secretary-General’s greatest achievements. There are, unfortunately, many difficulties in implementing it and guaranteeing that its principles of protection of human rights are applied consistently. The United Nations has no military power of its own and needs to rely on its member states to deploy any peacekeeping forces into action. In 2012, Kofi Annan was appointed as a UN envoy to Syria, but resigned six months later, claiming there was an insufficient attempt by the international community to end the conflict. “At a time when we need, when the Syrian people desperately need, action, there continues to be finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council”, he said. [3]

The “finger-pointing and name-calling” are emblematic of how the UN Security Council usually deals with international conflicts. Countries put their own national political interests above the human rights, resulting in arbitrary decisions whenever a crisis requires the application of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. In other words, what determines action, in each case, is the political will of the member states rather than the humanitarian urgency.

Despite the difficulties of peacemaking, Kofi Annan remained hopeful and never let reality drain away his idealism. In an interview this April, he told the BBC “I am a stubborn optimist, I was born an optimist and will remain an optimist.” [4]During his difficult and challenging career, he managed to deeply internalize the moral rhetoric of the United Nations. As Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian author who wrote a review of Annan’s autobiography, said:“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.” [5]

May Kofi Annan rest in peace. And may we keep the humanitarian values that guided his efforts as a peacemaker alive.

[1]ANNAN, Kofi. Secretary-General’s remarks at “Memorial Conference on the Rwanda Genocide”, organized by the governments of Canada and Rwanda.UN, New York, 2004. At: https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2004-03-26/secretary-generals-remarks-memorial-conference-rwanda-genocide

[2]ANNAN, Kofi. We the People, the United Nations of the 21st Century.UN, New York, 2000.At: https://www.un.org/en/events/pastevents/pdfs/We_The_Peoples.pdf

[3]ANNAN, Kofi. Opening remarks by Kofi Annan, Joint Special Envoy for Syria. UN, Geneva, 2012. At: http://www.un.org/apps/news/infocus/Syria/press.asp?sID=41

[4]ANNAN, Kofi. BBC’s HARDtalk programme. BBC, April 2018. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjRj9nBGaAE

[5]IGNATIEFF, Michael. The Confessions of Kofi Annan. The New York Review of Books, Dec 2012. At: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2012/12/06/confessions-kofi-annan/


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