The death yesterday of Kofi Annan at the age of 80 will be marked with sadness around the world — including here in New York where, between 1997 and 2006, the Ghanaian diplomat served as the 7th secretary general of the United Nations. He emerged as a dignified symbol of, among other things, the accession of post-colonial Africa to a place on the world stage. He was a Nobel laureate in peace. Secretary of State Pompeo offered America’s condolences.
Yet it is the part of newspaper work to acknowledge that for all the ideals that Annan articulated, his career was pocked with tragedy and scandal. It was on his watch that in 1994 the Rwanda genocide claimed 800,000 lives. The commander of United Nations forces, General Roméo Dallaire, blamed Annan for the failure of the U.N. to act. Annan was head of peacekeeping when, a year later, the Srebrenica massacre took place.
It was on Annan’s watch that the Oil-for-Food scandal erupted. It grew from a program to relieve hardships laid to the U.N. sanctions on Iraq. Run by the U.N. between 1996 and 2003, the program allowed Iraq to sell oil to buy goods for humanitarian relief. It became corrupt. The scandal engulfed Annan’s family when his son was reported to have continued receiving payments from an Oil-for-Food contractor for four years beyond the date on which Annan’s U.N. office had said such ties were severed.
That disclosure, first reported by Claudia Rosett on the front page of The New York Sun, stunned the world body. Eventually, a team led by a former Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, uncovered corruption, irregularities, and nepotism in the Oil-for-Food program. There were several indictments and convictions in American courts. Yet Annan himself was not directly implicated. He claimed vindication after the first of the Volcker volumes was released.
Annan was bitter at reporters who stuck with the Oil-for-Food story. They included not only Ms. Rosett but our reporter in Turtle Bay, Benny Avni (whom Annan berated by saying “Your world is so small”) and James Bone of the London Times (“You’ve been behaving like an overgrown schoolboy”). At a private dinner in New York, the editor of the Sun once asked Annan about Israel. Annan responded with a terse retort about colonialism.
The bitterness of the Annan years came to a head in June 2006, when his deputy, Mark Malloch Brown, made a political speech blaming the crisis at the world body on America, whose Congress was underwriting nearly a quarter of the United Nations’ budget. “You will lose the U.N. one way or another,” Annan’s deputy said. At one point he demanded: “Who will campaign in 2008 for a new multinational national security?”
We called it a “veritable call to the hustings” aimed at the “Democratic Party left.” Yet the tragedy is that Annan himself had little lasting impact within the United Nations system. His biggest attempt at reform was the replacement of the Commission on Human Rights with the Human Rights Council. “The new system is actually worse than its predecessor,” Mr. Avni wired us this evening. President George W. Bush declined to join the Council; President Obama signed on; President Trump finally withdrew America altogether.
What can be said of the Annan years is that they will have marked the end of the illusion that world government is a logical charter of freedom. Eventually, we’d like to think, attention will turn to the creation of a new structure — a system of bilateral agreements, perhaps, or a commonwealth based on British and American principles of political and economic liberty, or a league of democracies. Of Kofi Annan it can be said that it’s unlikely that anyone could have succeeded at the United Nations where he failed.