Photo credit: United States Mission Geneva
Born in Kumasi, Ghana, Kofi Annan served in the UN from 1962, rising through the ranks within the management and personnel departments. From 1993 he served as assistant secretary general for peacekeeping before becoming the seventh Secretary General from January 1997 until December 2006, and the first sub-Saharan African to lead the UN. A great African diplomat and humanitarian, he has been described as a “a conscience keeper of international peace and security,” by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
During his time in office he remained a fervent advocate of peace, sustainable development, human rights and the rule of law. His commitment to a world without violence was unending, and one of his last major public statements condemned the violence in Zimbabwe after the July election as “completely unacceptable.” Not only did he remind us of the power of non-violent action to achieve a world free from violent conflict, but he believed that this action needs to include the actions of all. For him, young people are never too young to lead, and for all of society to benefit and grow, women must be given the space and the freedom to thrive.
He will remain a source of inspiration through his actions to put people at the centre of the UN, and through believing in the potential of men, women and children in cities and villages around the world to make their own lives better. Let’s all build on Annan’s work and trust in his words that what unites us is stronger than what divides us: “More than ever before in human history, we share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together.” His legacy is being celebrated as bringing the UN closer to the people, but let us also remember and acknowledge the importance of bringing the people closer to the UN; ensuring that those who are building peace and tackling violent conflict at the grassroots do so with the support of international institutions.
His achievements in furthering peaceful transitions and negotiations were important and numerous. In 1998 Annan supported the transition to civilian rule in Nigeria and in 1999 he mediated an agreement to resolve a stalemate between Libya and the Security Council. Still, Annan presided over one of the most turbulent periods since the founding of the UN in 1945, with failures of missions in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. His time in office was not without its struggles and criticism, including his own reproaches; admitting that “I could and should have done more to sound the alarm and rally support,” in reference to the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Importantly, what should be highlighted was his will and drive to not repeat the mistakes of the past but to learn from them, and to ensure that these painful memories influenced his thinking and actions as Secretary General. Annan set up two internal inquiries to look into the tragedies in Rwanda and Bosnia, and advocated for better use of the media to raise awareness of escalating violence.
In 2007, he established the Kofi Annan Foundation, an independent NGO that works to strengthen the capacities of people and countries to achieve a fairer, more peaceful world. In an approach that mirrors our own, one of the key areas of work of the Foundation is to question current practice and propose new ways to help war-torn societies build lasting peace. From supporting free and fair elections, to empowering young leaders to counter violent extremism, we hope that the work of the Kofi Annan Foundation continues to lift the voices that often go unheard, and to support the actions of those striving for a more peaceful world.
We end by sharing a thought provoking comment from Kofi Annan himself, that “peace is never a perfect achievement.” While this thought is a sobering reminder that peace very often follows war, suffering and hatred, it also fills us with hope. Peace is not perfect just as the world is not; yet there is no bridge too broken to rebuild, no past too difficult to overcome, no conflict too complex to solve, and no act of peace too small to make a difference. His lifelong commitment to building peace inspires us to never stop in the pursuit of a better, fairer world, and to never underestimate the power of one person to change it.