Saturday 15 May 2021
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The U.N. Kofi Annan Left Behind

His triumphs created the organization we know today, and his tragedies are warnings for what’s in store.
Kofi Annan, who died last weekend, was arguably the most consequential United Nations secretary-general since the second, Dag Hammarskjold, who served in the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike the dashing Swedish diplomat, Annan was an organization man, the first to rise through the U.N.’s own ranks to its highest position. And yet he used his knowledge of the U.N. system, and his dignity, to good effect, becoming an eloquent advocate for a flawed organization and embodying the conscience of what some hopefully call “the international community.” His tragedy was to occupy his post during the greatest crisis in the troubled history of U.S.-U.N. relations—namely, the run-up to the Iraq War and its turbulent aftermath. Although his tenure ended in disappointment, he will be remembered for his defense of humanitarian intervention, his advocacy for U.N. peacekeeping, and his insight that security, development, and human rights are inseparable.
Annan was the first U.N. secretary-general from sub-Saharan Africa. He was plucked from relative obscurity by the Clinton administration, which was determined to deny a second term to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an acerbic and imperious Egyptian who had alienatedClinton administration officials, not least Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. But Annan’s selection was not without controversy. As a senior official in the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, he had been involved in the decision not to reinforce the beleaguered U.N. mission in Rwanda in 1994, with catastrophic results.
Annan would learn from that searing experience, as well as from genocides in the former Yugoslavia. Appointed to his first term in January 1997, Annan helped pioneer a principle that would become known as “the responsibility to protect,” or R2P.That doctrine attempted to square a circle. Since its founding, the United Nations has embodied two rival conceptions of world order. On the one hand, there is the Westphalian notion that the sovereign state is the primary bearer of rights and responsibilities in international affairs. That view is embedded in the U.N. Charter, which includes legal prohibitions against aggression and intervention in the internal affairs of member states. On the other hand, U.N. member states have gradually conceded that individuals, not just sovereign states, possess fundamental rights, too. These are enumerated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and embodied in an expanding array of international human rights conventions and international humanitarian law.
It is one thing to enunciate a principle, of course, and quite another to live by it. As the ongoing slaughter of civilians in Syria and the troubled aftermath of the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya attest, nascent norms risk becoming empty slogans when powerful U.N. member states fail to enforce them, invoke them selectively, or refuse to deal with the consequences of their application. Nevertheless, Annan merits praise for forging a fragile consensus on the basic obligations states owe to their citizens.
Annan’s second signal contribution was to strengthen U.N. peacekeeping. Within the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, he had been a cautious functionary, temperamentally and bureaucratically ill-equipped to respond to urgent appeals from commanders in the field. As secretary-general, however, he showed determination to learn from the U.N.’s failures. In advance of the 2000 Millennium Summit, Annan asked veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi to conduct a thorough review of U.N. peace operations. Brahimi’s eponymous report offered a hard-hitting assessment of the shortcomings of the United Nations and its member states.
Brahimi identified recurrent pathologies in U.N. peace operations, not least muddled mission mandates and disconnects between vaulting ambitions and meager resources. Above all, the report stressed the need for mutual accountability between the U.N. Secretariat and the Security Council. Too often, the Secretariat downplayed costs and risks of involvement in violent crises. Security Council members, meanwhile, frequently authorized peace operations without providing the required mandate or material support, and with the escape hatch of blaming “the U.N.” for resulting failures. Henceforth, Brahimi insisted, “The Secretariat must tell the Security Council what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear.” To his credit, Annan moved to implement the findings of the report.
This is not to say that peacekeeping has been fixed. The U.N. continues to struggle when it comes to mobilizing quality troops and providing them adequate logistical support and robust rules of engagement, protecting civilians caught in the crossfire, and—most egregiously—preventing sexual and other forms of abuse by peacekeepers themselves.
Stewart M. Patrick is James H. Binger senior fellow in global governance and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) Program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

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