Kofi Annan steps down as secretary-general at midnight Sunday, leaving behind a global organization far more aggressively engaged in peacekeeping and fighting poverty — but struggling to restore its tarnished reputation.
Taking office six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Annan helped preside over a decade that saw the world unite against terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, then divide deeply over the U.S.-led war against Iraq which toppled Saddam Hussein.
At a Millennium Summit in September 2000, he spurred world leaders to adopt a blueprint to wage a global war on poverty and bring the United Nations into the 21st century.
Five years later, he called a follow-up summit to mark the U.N.’s 60th anniversary. Hoping to complete the bold changes, he sought to promote development, ensure international security and end human rights abuses. History’s largest gathering of world leaders took a first step, but it fell far short.
Unlike the upbeat atmosphere at the dawn of the new millennium, the World Summit in 2005 took place after a year of almost daily attacks on the United Nations over allegations of corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq, bribery by U.N. purchasing officials, and widespread sex abuse by U.N. peacekeepers.
World leaders agreed to create an internal ethics office but they did not give Annan the authority to make sweeping management changes. The major overhaul of the U.N.’s outdated management practices and operating procedures will be left to Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-moon, who takes over on Jan. 1.
In what was considered a major summit achievement, world leaders pledged to protect civilians from genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing — but before stepping down earlier this month U.N. humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland accused leaders of failure to translate their pledge into action, especially in Sudan’s Darfur region, Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Annan 'set a framework' for U.N.
At a farewell news conference earlier this month, Annan said he considered his top achievements the promotion of human rights, fighting to close the gap between extreme poverty and immense wealth, and the U.N.’s campaign to fight AIDS and other infectious diseases.
“His greatest accomplishment was to set a framework that moved the U.N. from one century to the next — the response to mass atrocities, the central role of democracy, the importance of human rights, and a priority to development,” said Lee Feinstein, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Under Annan, U.N. peacekeeping has expanded with nearly 80,000 U.N. troops and international police currently deployed from Africa and the Mideast to Kosovo, Haiti and East Timor.
Annan’s first five-year term culminated in 2001 with the Nobel Peace Prize — shared with the United Nations — for “their work for a better organized and more peaceful world.” Annan himself was lauded for “bringing new life to the organization.”
But Annan’s second five-year term was not without shadows. An investigation led by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker blamed shoddy U.N. management and the world’s most powerful nations for allowing corruption in the $64 billion oil-for-food program to go on for years.
Annan was besieged with questions about his son’s involvement with a company that won an oil-for-food contract, and Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, called for his resignation.
Oil-for-food a low point
Annan told reporters that one of his worst moments was the way oil-for-food “was exploited to undermine the organization.”
Professor Edward Luck, director of the Center on International Organization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said he thinks “historians are going to give Kofi Annan relatively high marks.”
“He’s certainly someone who aimed high and sometimes failed to achieve what his rhetoric promised,” Luck said. “But he certainly did succeed in restoring the individual to the center of the U.N.’s agenda, both in terms of human security and human rights and the responsibility to protect.”
Annan, 68, said he will maintain all those U.N. concerns — and many more — in his new life, likely to be divided between Switzerland and his native Ghana.
“You can take the man out of the U.N.,” Annan told one recent farewell party, “but you can’t take the U.N. out of the man.”