Kofi Annan, 1938–2018
The U.N. leader who pushed for humanitarian intervention
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.” ■