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Editorial: Through The Years Of Conflict Kofi Annan Fought For Peace

DESPITE the issuance of an official statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the death last week of the distinguished former United Nations Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Laureate Kofi Annan, there has been little media coverage here at home of his passing.

Readers will wish to know about this renowned world statesman of African descent. So it is appropriate to offer comment in these columns, not least because he was the first sub-Saharan African to become leader of the UN. Surrounded by his family, he passed away in Switzerland - where his own Foundation promoting peace and democracy is based - at the age of 80 after a short illness the details of which have not been disclosed.

Serving as the seventh Secretary-General of the UN during two successive terms between 1997 and 2006, Mr Annan occupied this prestigious post during a decade of turmoil including the attacks on the twin towers in New York in 2001 and the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

It was a time when policy-makers had turned from preoccupation with the Cold War to issues of globalisation and Islamic militancy.

Born in the West African state of Ghana – where flags have been at half-mast in honour of one of its most famous sons – and educated there and in the United States, he worked at the UN for most of his professional life occupying a range of different posts and was the first secretary-general to be appointed from within the organisation.

His passing has attracted tributes from around the world. Praised as a towering global figure and a champion of peace and human rights, he has been described as an outstanding individual who was charismatic, gracious and determined while consistently displaying a blend of wisdom, courage and dignity in working to reform and revitalise the UN as an organisation dedicated to achieving world peace – and he was both admired and loved for reaching out and touching the lives of so many with deep compassion and empathy.

Nonetheless, this worthy reputation was partially blemished by his handling of a maelstrom of conflicts during his time as head of UN peacekeeping operations in the 1990s. For example, he was criticised for failing to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and for not taking action to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia the following year.

He later expressed extreme regret for these and other failures which were regarded as a blot on his career. Reportedly, they deeply affected his subsequent thinking and attitude and seemed to strengthen his resolve to become involved later in Darfur and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to work for the development of a new UN approach based on the norm of humanitarian intervention.

His reputation also suffered from alleged corruption involving his own son in the UN oil-for-food programme in Iraq in the mid-1990s. Thus, some claim his legacy was mixed though all agree it was a strong one.

He was praised for his personal intervention with Saddam Hussein over UN weapons inspectors and, subsequently, for his courage in condemning the invasion of Iraq as illegal. The latter became a serious test of his UN leadership when it was starkly clear that, while the protection of human rights worldwide was always high on his agenda, his writ and powers as secretary-general only extended as far as the UN Security Council – the ultimate authority in international affairs – permitted.

Overall, Kofi Annan was a powerful force for good on the world stage. This continued after his retirement through establishment of his own Foundation to overcome threats to peace, development and human rights and to promote better global governance in order to achieve a fairer and more secure world. He also deployed his diplomatic skills in efforts to bring an end to the Syrian conflict and in relation to problems in Kenya and, most recently, in Zimbabwe.

During what has been described as a life well-lived, he was a rare breed of diplomat. Charming and courtly with a measured approach, he exuded probity and authority and demonstrated an unshakeable firmness when required. Despite spending most of his working life at the UN and often being at the heart of world diplomacy, he never lost sight of his origins -- and he was quoted as saying in 2003 that he always felt ‘profoundly African’ where his roots remained.

Kofi Annan’s personal qualities should surely serve as an inspiration to others in their own lives. But to emulate him may be a tough call because the bar he set was so high.

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