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Kofi Annan was the United Nations

botchway September 14, 2018


By António Guterres   .

Since the shock of former United Nations’ Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s death, I have been reflecting on what made him so special.

To my mind, it is simply this:  Kofi Annan was both one-of-a-kind and one of us.

He was an exceptional global leader — and he was also someone virtually anyone in the world could see themselves in: those on the far reaches of poverty, conflict and despair who found in him an ally; the junior UN staffer following in his footsteps; the young person to whom he said until his dying breath “always remember, you are never too young to lead — and we are never too old to learn.”

Like few in our time, Kofi Annan could bring people together, put them at ease, and unite them towards a common goal for our common humanity.

There is an old joke: The art of diplomacy is to say nothing especially when you are speaking!

Kofi Annan could say everything, sometimes without uttering a word. It came from the dignity and the moral conviction and the humanity that was so deep in him.

He had that gentle voice that lilt that made people smile and think of music. But his words were tough and wise. And sometimes the graver a situation, the lower that voice would get.

We would lean in to listen. And the world would lean in. And we were rewarded by his wisdom.

Kofi Annan was courageous, speaking truth to power while subjecting himself to intense self-scrutiny. And like his predecessor as UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold, he had an almost mystical sense of the role of the United Nations as a force for good in a world of ills.

All of this added up to a remarkable record of achievement.

He pioneered new ideas and initiatives, including the Millennium Development Goals and the landmark reforms in his report, “In Larger Freedom”.

He opened the doors of the United Nations, bringing the Organization closer to the world’s people and engaging new partners in protecting the environment, defending human rights and combating HIV/AIDS and other killer diseases.

Kofi Annan was the United Nations and the United Nations was him.

He was also my good friend. We marched through life together in many ways.

When the people of Timor-Leste were seeking self-determination, we worked together — he from the United Nations, and I as Prime Minister of Portugal — to support the peaceful resolution of their plight.

When the UN Refugee Agency needed new leadership, Kofi blessed me with his trust in asking me to fill that role – and then provided unwavering support to protect and shelter the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

Now that I occupy the office Kofi once held, I am continually inspired by his integrity, dynamism and dedication.

To him, indifference was the world’s worst poison.

Even after finishing his term as Secretary-General, he never stopped battling on the front-lines of diplomacy.

He helped to ease post-election tensions in Kenya, gave his all to find a political solution to the brutal war in Syria and set out a path for ensuring justice and rights for the Rohingya people of Myanmar.

Kofi straddled many worlds, North and South, East and West. But he found his surest anchor in his African roots and identity.

The great Nelson Mandela, accustomed to being called Madiba, had his own nickname for Kofi, and called him “my leader”. This was no jest. Kofi was our leader, too.

When I last saw him not long ago at the UN, his bearing was how I will always remember him: calm yet determined, ready to laugh but always filled with the gravity of the work we do.

He is gone now and we will miss him immensely. But I am sure of this — if we continue to lean in and listen hard, we will still hear the words and wise counsel of Kofi Annan.

“Please carry on,” I hear him saying. “You know what to do: Take care of each other. Take care of our planet. Recognize the humanity in all people. And support the United Nations — the place where we can all come together to solve problems and build a better future for all”.

Let us continue to heed that voice of grace and reason – that voice of morality and solidarity.

Our world needs it now more than ever.

As we face the headwinds of our troubled and turbulent times, let us always be inspired by the legacy of Kofi Annan — and guided by the knowledge that he will continue speaking to us, urging us on towards the goals to which he dedicated his life and truly moved our world.

António Guterres is Secretary-General of the United Nations.  Remarks delivered at the funeral of Kofi Annan in Accra, Ghana, on September 13, 2018.


Kofi Annan remembered: The human side of a UN chief

By Mark Devenport

Political historians will no doubt debate Kofi Annan’s legacy as UN secretary-general for decades to come.

As head of UN peacekeeping, could he have done more to avert the genocide in Rwanda?

Was he vindicated in his criticism of the Iraq war by the allies’ failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction and the disastrous aftermath of the conflict?

Will his promotion of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and his battle to stem the spread of Aids shape the destiny of his own African continent?

As the BBC’s United Nations Correspondent between 1999 and 2001, these were the kind of issues I wrestled with.

I resisted becoming a UN fan, as I needed to dispassionately assess the organisation’s role in handling crises of the era such as East Timor, Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

However, I have to say that, as secretary-general at the time, Kofi Annan was always a pleasure to work with.

‘Inner steel’

With a career spent largely covering Northern Ireland, I have dealt with my fair share of pugnacious politicians, so intent on making their point that you fear the blood vessels on their heads might pop.

By contrast, even in highly pressurised situations, I found Kofi Annan to retain his characteristic gentle demeanour, enunciating his views softly, but clearly.

He had an inner steel, but rarely put it on display.

In dealing with various leaders or celebrities, it’s illuminating to examine how they treat either their staff or members of the public.

Some can be high-handed, distant, or downright rude, if they don’t regard you as a person of consequence, but not Kofi Annan.

Back in 1999, he was due to visit my hometown of Oxford to make a speech at the University’s Centre for Islamic Studies on the dialogue between civilisations.

It happened to be a subject my brother Peter was interested in, and so I managed to secure him a ticket.

But in the run up to the event Peter broke his leg and thought he wouldn’t be able to make it.

In the end he went, complete with plaster and crutches.

At the end of the lecture, Peter was making his way out of the Sheldonian Theatre, when the secretary-general saw him and thanked him for making such an effort to attend.

A few pleasantries followed before Kofi made a fatal error in asking my brother what he thought of his lecture. Peter, never shy of speaking his mind, differed with the secretary-general on quite a few points.

On the margins of a news conference in New York a few weeks later, the secretary-general nodded to me and smiled.

“I met your brother in Oxford and we had quite an interesting chat,” he said.

I think from the twinkle in his eye it was a deliberate understatement.

In 2001, I returned to Northern Ireland, while Kofi Annan continued his work, not least dealing with the diplomatic fallout from the 9/11 atrocities.

In July of that year Peter collapsed – he was taken to hospital and diagnosed with a brain tumour. By December, he was dead.

At the start of 2002, I made a return trip to United Nations HQ.

A radio documentary I made with a production team from BBC Northern Ireland on the topic of blood diamonds had been awarded a prize in a UN competition.

‘Touching gesture’

The secretary-general presented me with my award and asked “how is your brother?”

He looked shocked as I told him what had happened.

A few days later, an envelope dropped through my letter box in Belfast.

It was from the secretary-general offering me his deepest condolences.

“Knowing how much a sibling means, I can only wish you courage and fortitude at this time,” he wrote.

“I still remember meeting him (Peter) in the United Kingdom and the very nice chat we had on that occasion.”

It was a touching gesture from a man who, quite literally, had the cares of the world on his shoulders.

Politics and diplomacy may be about power and wealth, self-interest and rhetoric, and the clash of ideologies and values.

But it should also provide room for empathy, decency, and acts of humanity, and it is with this in mind that I mourn Kofi Annan’s passin

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