Two months ago I met Kofi Annan for the last time. It happened in Geneva at a UN conference on the issues of water – a growing problem at the time of climate change and one with serious implications for international peace and security.
Both of us participated in the same, opening panel. We also had an opportunity for a personal conversation. Kofi was as cordial, witty and generous as he had always been. I presented him with a photograph of a sculpture of the portrait of an African woman. The sculpture had been made by my wife, Barbara earlier this year – based on the 1895 painting of Anton Ažbe a Slovene painter. Kofi was very pleased to see the photo and shared it with his wife, Nane, herself a noted painter. Over the twenty five years of our acquaintance we have often talked about painting and arts. These and other conversations have built a personal bond. Ten years ago we celebrated Kofi Annan’s seventieth birthday together in Slovenia.
Naturally, as most of our other conversations, the last one of the end of June 2018 was mainly about the United Nations. The UN is not only and organization of diplomatic conferences, its Security Council actions and peace keeping operations. It is, above all, a community of devoted people. Kofi Annan had a unique talent of making friends in every part of the world. He had thousands of friends and millions of supporters – as emphasized yesterday by Prince Zeid, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Kofi Annan became the UN Secretary-General at the right time – in 1997, when it became both necessary and possible to correct some of the past mistakes and to open new horizons of work for the UN. He reformed the system of peace keeping operations, at the time not yet recovered from serious mistakes and tragic failures in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Rwanda. He initiated the launching of the UN Millennium Development Goals. Both projects enabled considerable improvements in the work of the UN. His initiative for the prevention of genocide - “The Responsibility to Protect” produced some important results in the years between its adoption by the General Assembly in 2005 and 2011 – in Kenya, with Kofi Annan’s personal involvement, in Guinea and in other places. Kofi Annan also showed great passion and skill in putting together the global campaign against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Millions of lives were saved as a result.
However, in international politics, success is an elusive commodity. It most often depends on circumstances upon which the UN Secretary-General has only very limited influence. The UN is an organization of high hopes and deep disappointments and its activities resemble a pendulum between these two opposing poles. The Secretary-General, too, is a part of this movement- that for the largest part depends on the big powers. They sometimes listen to the advice of the UN Secretary-General, but often ignore it. Kofi Annan experienced the latter, most tragically at the time prior to and during the war in Iraq in 2003. As a proponent of quiet, preventive diplomacy, he used its potential to the last atom, alas without success. Many among us, his lieutenants at the time, expected from him a more resolute public opposition to war. We were disappointed. However, a year and a half after the war the world saw how precarious the position of the UN Secretary-General can be. In September 2014 Kofi Annan publicly described the war in Iraq as a violation of international law. This public statement triggered an unprecedented negative campaign against him. It cost him not only a lot of energy he had to use for his defence but also a reduced room of manoeuvre of his diplomacy. It reduced political support to him and had an adverse effect on his health.
However, his work continued. In the more normal aspects of activity of the UN at that time Kofi Annan continued his efforts for reforms. Importantly, reforms ultimately depend on the consensus of UN member states, something that is never easy to achieve. Very often the success of reforms depends on the choice of timing of a Secretary-General’s initiative. I recall our frequent conversations about the reform of the UN system in the field of human rights. In the year 2003 I wrote, at his request, a proposal that included the idea of establishing the UN Council for Human Rights. Two years later Kofi Annan included this proposal into his report on the reforms and succeeded in convincing the UN member states. The UN Human Rights Council was established in the spring of 2006. However, today, twelve years later, we can see the fragility of an international institution and the evaporation of international support to human rights. Even the best achievements in the UN are not irreversible.
The great majority of people around the world will remember Kofi Annan favourably and, above all, with respect. Kofi himself would oppose painting an overly idealized picture of his work. However, respect and recognition that he sincerely and competently worked for just causes and a better world and that he had real achievements is today shared by all.