The late Kofi Annan’s influence on the global stage will be felt for decades. For one thing, he never shied away from controversies.
The issue of his role as the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when the international system collectively failed the people of this central African country, will remain a blemish on his legacy.
Annan publicly acknowledged his failure to act in a manner that would have curtailed or prevented the catastrophic carnage that Rwanda endured, and whose effects continue to afflict the Great Lakes Region of Africa.
The burden of this failure, however, should be also be spread to his immediate boss at the time, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the then UN Secretary-General, powerful members of the UN Security Council, and the US and French governments, both of whom had prior intelligence about the planning for the genocide.
Ultimately, African governments in the region also bear a significant portion of the blame for their collective failure to intervene to prevent the Rwandan tragedy, and a report of the erstwhile Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which held the regional mandate to prevent crisis, also acknowledges its own failings. The OAU also issued its own report acknowledging the continent’s failure to protect its own citizens.
As a young man Annan wanted to make a difference in the world, and as he intimates in his memoir, Interventions: A Life in Peace and War, he was driven by the conviction that the imperative to address suffering and injustice anywhere in the world was our responsibility as individuals, communities and countries. Annan worked his way up the UN system from an entry position. Ultimately, he was able to take advantage of Boutros-Ghali’s fraught relationship with the US administration.
The then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, blocked Boutros-Ghali’s re-appointment for a second term as UN Secretary-General, which meant that a new appointment had to be made. There was a sense among UN diplomats that it was still Africa’s “turn” and when Annan threw his hat into the ring, he emerged as an immediate front-runner and ultimately secured the position.
Annan’s appointment was not a forgone conclusion and he, like the other candidates, had to endure the usual behind-the-scenes vetting conducted by the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council, who effectively control the agenda of the body. Annan went on to serve as UN Secretary-General from 1997 to 2006, leaving a legacy that has elevated him into a select pantheon of global leaders.
Annan’s tenure witnessed significant shifts in the geopolitical landscape, which to this day continues to frame the way nation-states conceptualise and operationalise efforts to resolve persistent global challenges. As Secretary-General, Annan was intimately involved in behind the scenes negotiations during the UN Diplomatic Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which took place in Rome, Italy.
His role in preventing powerful countries from blocking the establishment of the ICC is yet to be fully documented, but suffice to say that Annan played an important role in ensuring the adoption of the Rome Statute which established the court. The existence of the ICC immediately disrupted age-old notions of the sovereignty of nation-states and their right to orchestrate atrocities at their whim. The international system acquired a mechanism to challenge nation-states that commit what the Rome Statute defines as the “most serious crimes of international concern”.
Our responsibility to protect
From the outset, Annan advanced the agenda of conflict prevention during his tenure. In 1999, during the annual UN General Assembly, Annan made a compelling case for new thinking around humanitarian intervention.
In 2000, Annan convened the Panel on UN Peace Operations, headed by his colleague Lakhdar Brahimi, of Algeria, with the objective of reviewing and recommending how to improve UN peace and security interventions. The Brahimi Report which emerged from the finding of this UN Panel has continued to inform the way we operationalise peace operations around the world.
In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty issued its report entitled The Responsibility to Protect, which outlined the imperative of nation-states and the UN system to prevent crises, react to emerging situations in a timely manner, and rebuild societies by addressing the grievances which cause tensions as a pathway to reconciliation.
Subsequently, in 2004, Annan convened a High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, to further develop ideas around how to prevent and intervene in a more effective manner. The panel issued a report, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, which made a number of recommendations that gradually framed the new thinking around humanitarian intervention.
Annan’s input is evident in the lead-up to the 2005 General Assembly meeting which issued an Outcome Document, in which the notion of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was formally adopted as part of the doctrine of the UN. Despite efforts by powerful members of the UN system to circumvent and bastardise this notion of R2P for their own agenda, it continues to inform the way we understand and engage with the shifting geopolitical landscape of humanitarian intervention.
Rebuilding war-affected societies
Annan also recognised that the global system was faltering in its efforts to support countries undertaking efforts to rebuild themselves, notably in the aftermath of violent conflict. In August 2004, Annan issued a Report of the Secretary-General entitled The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-conflict Societies, which remains a seminal reference document for a countries that are addressing the challenge of dealing with the past and advancing the cause of truth-recovery, justice, reparation and institutional reform as pathways to national reconciliation.
In March 2005, Annan issued a Report of the Secretary-General entitled, In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All, recommended that UN member states establish a Peacebuilding Commission to fill the institutional gap that exists with regards to assisting countries to make the transition from war to lasting peace.
Annan noted that the UN’s record in implementing and monitoring peace agreements had been tainted by some devastating failures, for example in Angola in 1993, Rwanda 1994, and challenges in Bosnia 1995 and East Timor in 1999. Since about half of all countries that emerge from war lapse back into violence within five years, an integral part of addressing the “scourge of war” must involve establishing an institutional framework to ensure that peace agreements are implemented and post-conflict peacebuilding is consolidated.
It was after Annan’s report that debates about the creation of the UN Peacebuilding Commission increased. This culminated, in September 2005, in the UN world summit and the 60th session of the General Assembly at which the recommendations of the report were reviewed.
The General Assembly adopted an Outcome Document at the close of the meeting which the former UN Secretary-General described as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” to forge a global consensus on development, security, human rights and reform. On 20 December 2005, the Security Council and the General Assembly concluded their negotiations on the operationalisation of the recommendation of the world summit and adopted joint resolutions establishing the UN Peacebuilding Commission.
The elephants in the room
Annan did not shy away from geopolitical controversies, notably during the campaign to launch a military intervention in Iraq, which was led by the US government following the September 2001 attacks on its territory. Acutely aware of the fate that befell his predecessor, Boutros-Ghali when he defied the US, Annan was consistent in criticising the attempts to drum up support for war with Iraq, which culminated in Washington’s unsuccessful efforts to hoodwink the UN Security Council into voting to support the invasion of the country.
Having failed to obtain the legitimacy of the UN Security Council, the George Bush administration proceed to demonstrate its disregard for international law by cajoling a coalition-of-the-coerced, including Tony Blair’s British government, to invade a member of the UN. This singular act by the US exposed the severe limitations of the UN system as it is currently constituted as an effective system for maintaining international peace and security.
Reflecting on that period Annan noted in Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, that “the Iraq War was neither in accordance with the Charter nor legitimate”. The illegality of the US-led invasion of Iraq would expose the UN Security Council’s claim to uphold the maintenance of international peace and security. In the face of the naked aggression of one of its own Permanent Five, the Security Council was impotent and rendered irrelevant. Annan concluded that “by behaving the way it did, the US invited the perception among many in the world – including many long-time allies – that it was becoming a greater threat to global security”.
Annan was subsequently vindicated by the UK’s Chilcot Inquiry, which prompted Tony Blair to issue a muted apology for his role in orchestrating the carnage that wreaked havoc in Iraq. Today, Iraq remains fraught and fragmented as a direct result of the illegal US invasion of 2003 that spawned spin-offs of the Al-Qaeda network which spread its tentacles across the Middle East.
A personal low point, as indicated in his memoir, was the untimely death of his close colleague and confidant Sergio Viera De Mello, one of Annan’s most accomplished Special Representatives of the UN Secretary-General, as the result of a terrorist bomb at the UN headquarters in Baghdad.
In the aftermath of the illegal invasion of Iraq the world is still dealing with disgruntled factions of the remnants of the Iraq army and armed militia, who have spawned a virulent strain of violent extremism in the form of ISIS. Iraq’s factions of al-Quaeda remnants and ISIS have since perpetrated untold suffering in the country as well as Syria, and neighbouring countries in the Middle East. Subsequently, these extremists have fanned into Libya and inspired homegrown terrorism in Africa, with ISIS-inspired insurgents, Somalia’s al-Shabaab and the Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Annan, writing in his memoirs, has called for the wholesale reform of the international system. This issue resonates with a number of member states and there are ongoing initiatives among a number of member states to establish a UN Parliamentary Assembly, whose objective would be to create a more inclusive decision making platform so that illegal actions such as the US-led Iraq debacle are not replicated.
Retired but not tired
Following his departure from the UN in 2006, the Kofi Annan Foundation took up much of the former Secretary-General’s time. He was routinely called upon by various branches of the UN system to provide advise and share his insights and experiences. From a Pan-African perspective, Annan continued to comment and influence continental affairs from behind the scenes.
This culminated in 2008 with a request from the African Union to lead a team of mediators to address the post-electoral violence which erupted in December 2007 in Kenya. Annan, partnered with Benjamin Mkapa, former President of Tanzania, and Graca Machel, continental stateswoman, Mozambican freedom fighter and widow of Nelson Mandela.
The African Union led the mediation effort, with the support of the UN Department of Political Affairs, and it was in this context that one could witness how Annan drew upon his collective body of knowledge and wisdom to bring about change in the precarious situation unfolding in Kenya.
With the UN system providing full support to his efforts and other global players also working with, rather than against one another, the world witnessed one of those rare occurrences when a potential disaster was pulled back from the brink. In the Kenyan post-election crisis mediation, the geopolitical stars were aligned and in an unprecedented 40-day period Annan and his co-mediators succeeded in getting the Kenyan interlocutors to reach a consensus and agreement.
This was not random happenstance or fortuitous luck. Annan used his extensive knowledge and practical insights of the mediation process based on his experience as a former UN Special Envoy and his insights as the UN Secretary-General to orchestrate efficient and effective negotiations between the Kenyan stakeholders.
Knowing how to encourage parties to alter their mindset in crisis situations and gradually step back from the cliff of escalating conflict is at the heart of the mediation process. There is no individual who can achieve a desired outcome in mediation, at the international level, by working in isolation. In effect, a significant part of the mediation puzzle is in convening a team that can effectively contribute to the peaceful outcomes which are notoriously complex and difficult to achieve, as illustrated by the persistent crises that continue to afflict regions of the world.
Annan knew who to call, and when, to obtain insights or to brief adversarial parties in order to gradually entice and cajole parties towards a common ground. Undoubtedly, Annan drew upon his understanding of the mechanics and modalities of crafting an agenda for dialogue and mediation, starting with the least contention issues, in order to build up momentum and show parties the pathway to an agreement.
He demonstrated his mastery of that uniquely challenging geopolitical art of mediation in guiding the Kenyan interlocutors towards a peace agreement. Annan would have amassed these insights during his 40-year career in the UN system, and he was uniquely placed to understand the requirements of all the stages of the mediation process, from the technical level of details, to the realm of high-level political negotiation.
Concretely, this process required progressively encouraging adversaries towards engaging in the cessation of hostilities, to crafting a political settlement that addresses their interests, and committing parties to the transitional justice processes to advance truth-telling, justice, reparations for survivors, and institutional reform as the necessary foundation for reconciliation and peacebuilding.
On 28 February 2008, after a frenetic forty-day period Annan and his team encouraged the opposing political formations to agree to sign the Kenya National Accord and Reconciliation Agreement. This was his finest hour and his status as geopolitical peacemaker was etched into the history books. The potential fall-out of a precipitous spread of violence in Kenya during this period would have been a fate to terrible to contemplate, and the country is not yet out of the woods in terms of addressing tensions among its communities.
A decade after Annan’s intervention, Kenyans are still grappling and working through issues raised in the agreement, and by extension they are still engaging with the legacy of Annan’s intervention.
If Annan’s accumulated body of wisdom could be distilled into a tablet and ingested by mediators around the world to enhance their skills and co-ordinating prowess, the world would undoubtedly be a less violent place. This is in fact his legacy, and a clarion call to peacemakers and peacebuilders all around the world to draw strength and insights from what Annan stood for and the kind of world that he hoped to shape. His deeds are also a message to the youth of today who Annan celebrated as the purveyors of hope and agents of change, in what was, and still remains, a cynical world of mistrust, suspicion, fake news, post-truth and Machiavellian machinations.
The office of the UN Secretary-General has been described as “the most impossible job in the world”, and it is recurrent comment within the organisations corridors that the initials SG, in fact stand for “scapegoat” – particularly when the going gets tough, and everyone is looking for someone on whom to assign blame. Annan’s soft-spoken influence permeates the sphere of international relations, serving as a beacon to guide all those who feel compelled to make and build peace in a world afflicted by discord and tension.
Ultimately, Kofi Annan’s impact on the global stage is firmly established and his epigraph reads: Thought Leader, Institution Builder; Peacemaker. DM
Professor Tim Murithi is Head of Peacebuilding Interventions, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Cape Town, and editor of the Routledge Handbook of Africa’s International Affairs, @tmurithi12