After years as the U.N.’s ‘Man In The Middle’, Kofi Annan is taking a break. First as Secretary-General, and most recently as special envoy to Syria, he has wrestled with some of the world’s most difficult problems. Now, in an interview in Geneva, Kofi Annan looks back.

He is one of the most well-known players on the world stage, respected for his unwavering commitment to international diplomacy, but also fiercely criticised for failing to stop the bloodshed in Rwanda, Bosnia, and most recently in Syria.

In his new book, “Interventions,” former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan attempts to shape how history will remember his 40 years at the United Nations: “Well, I hope that it will be said that, ‘He made a contribution.’”

Born in Kumasi, Ghana, on 8 April 1938, Mr. Annan joined the UN system in 1962 as an administrative and budget officer with the World Health Organization in Geneva. He later served with the Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, the UN Emergency Force (UNEF II) in Ismailia, the United nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva and in various senior posts in New York dealing with human resources, budget, finance and staff security. Immediately before becoming Secretary-General, he was Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping. Mr. Annan also served as Special Representative of the Secretary-General to the former Yugoslavia (1995-1996) and facilitated the repatriation from Iraq of more than 900 international staff and other non-Iraqi nationals (1990).

At Mr. Annan’s initiative, UN peacekeeping was strengthened in ways that enabled the United Nations to cope with a rapid rise in the number of operations and personnel. It was also at Mr. Annan’s urging that, in 2005, Member States established two new intergovernmental bodies: the Peace-building Commission and the Human Rights Council. Mr Annan likewise played a central role in the creation of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the adoption of the UN’s first-ever counter-terrorism strategy, and the acceptance by Member States of the “responsibility to protect” people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.  His “Global Compact” initiative, launched in 1999, has become the world’s largest effort to promote corporate social responsibility.

Mr. Annan undertook wide-ranging diplomatic initiatives. In 1998, he helped to ease the transition to civilian rule in Nigeria.  Also that year, he visited Iraq in an effort to resolve an impasse between that country and the Security Council over compliance with resolutions involving weapons inspections and other matters – an effort that helped to avoid an outbreak of hostilities, which was imminent at that time. In 1999, he was deeply involved in the process by which Timor-Leste gained independence from Indonesia.  He was responsible for certifying Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, and in 2006 his efforts contributed to securing a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hizbollah. Also in 2006, he mediated a settlement of the dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi peninsula through implementation of the judgement of the International Court of Justice.

Annan’s name will forever be attached to some of darkest chapters in the U.N.’s history. He was the head of U.N. peacekeeping forces when some 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda.

The next year, more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were slaughtered in Srebenica, which had been designated a so-called U.N. safe area.

“Of course, we failed,” Annan said. “Not only that, I apologised, on behalf of the U.N. and on my own behalf.”

Annan writes that the experiences of Rwanda and Bosnia pushed him to try to shape the U.N. into an organization that would “step up rather than stand by.”

“We’ve intervened to make life easier for people living with HIV/AIDs,” he said, “in the cases of tsunami in Indonesia or earthquake in Pakistan, and on health issues, where the Avian Flu broke out in Asia.”

“Do you think perhaps the United Nations is better equipped to deal with issues like disease and development rather than conflict?” he has been asked.”Maybe you are right – in health and other areas, we have the tools and the systems in place. And governments, by and large, cooperate. When it comes to peacekeeping, the U.N. has no standard army. We borrow troops from governments, and sometimes the governments give us their troops and sometimes they don’t.”

But he has spent most of his life trying to overcome those limitations.

“We are the only organization with the universal convening power that can bring every country under the sun in one conference room and say, ‘Let’s discuss this.’ It’s not a perfect organisation but it’s the best we’ve got.”

His original home was the West African nation of Ghana. At the age of 18 he gained a scholarship to Macalester College in Minnesota. From there it was on to the U.N., where he became known for his mild-mannered brand of diplomacy.

Has he ever lost his temper? “Sometimes,” he admits, “but not by pounding the table. But those who know me can tell when I’m upset. They see it in my eyes, and sometimes there’s a certain edge to the voice.”

In his role as Secretary General, Annan has sat down with some of the most brutal dictators, including Saddam Hussein.

When asked his impression of the Iraqi leader, Annan said, “Not what one would expect. He was calm. Hardly moving his hands. Which is unusual in the region. Makes you wonder, ‘Can this man sitting here sit, talking calmly and yet is so capable of all the things that we know he has done?’”

It was the 2003 war in Iraq that perhaps proved the greatest threat to the U.N.’s authority. The Security Council was pushed out of the way by the U.S. and its allies. The war commenced without the Council’s permission.

“Today, despite the best efforts of the international community and the United Nations, war has come to Iraq for the third time in a quarter-century,” Annan said in 2003.

When asked if he thinks that the invasion of Iraq, in some ways, almost jeopardized the very existence of the United Nations, Annan says, “It brought very serious tensions in the organisation, and tensions that took quite a while to heal,” he replied. “But I think that was the finest moment of the Council, to refuse to support a war that, in my judgment, was illegal.”

Despite his strong objections to the war, Annan sent one of his top lieutenants and a close friend, Sergio de Mello, to manage its aftermath. When a suicide bomber hit a U.N. meeting on August 19, 2003, 22 people were killed, including de Mello.

“So for him to be blown away, the way it was, was so painful. And I don’t think many people knew my – the agony, the pain.”

At the end of 2006, Annan stepped down as Secretary General. But this year he took on one final mission: to act as the U.N.’s special envoy to Syria, where a brutal conflict has left 20,000 people dead in the last 18 months.

Annan drew up a six-point peace plan that called for an immediate ceasefire and the beginning of talks, but the ceasefire didn’t hold.

“A mediator is not brought on board to join one camp or the other. The mediator’s role is to find a way out of the conflict,” he said.

The Elders: Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi, Ela Bhatt, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Mary Robinson, Graca Machel, Martti Ahtisaari, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Gro Brundtland

In July Annan announced that he was stepping down from his role in Syria: “I did what I could. I did not resolve the conflict. The effort has failed.”

When asked to look back at all the lessons that were learned from Rwanda, from Bosnia in the mid ’90s, and yet here we are in 2012 in Syria, and if it feels like we’re back to square one, Annan simply replied with this: “Yeah, says something about us human beings, doesn’t it?” Annan replied. “Do we ever learn? Is it in our DNA to keep fighting each other?”

Annan now plans take a step back from diplomacy and concentrate on some projects that will allow this very private man some peace and quiet – something that his work has not.

What’s next for Kofi Annan?

“I’m going to live,” he replied.

In addition to his work with the Kofi Annan Foundation, Mr. Annan serves as the Chairman of the Africa Progress Panel (APP) and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).  He is also a Board member, Patron or Honorary member of a number of organisations. Mr. Annan currently serves as the Chancellor of the University of Ghana, a Global Fellow at Columbia University in the United States, and Li Ka Shing Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Since his appointment on 23 February 2012 as Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria, Mr. Annan has recused himself as a member of The Elders.

Kofi Annan is married to Nane and between them they have three children.



2012 CBS Interactive Inc. (Interview with Clarissa Ward).

3 Responses

  1. Teresa

    Reblogged this on and commented:This is a beaftiuul way to begin the day. It reminded me of the Parker Palmer quote: Ask who the person is that teaches. Who am I? What do I stand for? What do I hold as my truth? These are the guideposts of life from moment to moment. Be present.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.