Sun | Jan 20, 2019

Editorial | Annan: a guiding force for good

Published:Wednesday | August 22, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The greatest of men usually have two defining qualities: humanity and a capacity for deep and thoughtful reflection. Kofi Annan, who died on Saturday, at age 80, was possessed of both, in great measure.

They are among the attitudes that defined Mr Annan, a former secretary general of the United Nations, as the decent human being and outstanding diplomat being celebrated around the world, not least in Jamaica.

Almost reflexively, Kofi Annan would be esteemed among Jamaicans and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Not only was he the first and, thus far, only black secretary general of the UN, he was from Ghana, the West African country and region from where the ancestors of the vast majority of Jamaicans began their journey to their new homes in this region. Indeed, on the streets of Kingston and almost any other city in the Caribbean, he would be indistinguishable from almost any other passer-by. In that sense, we lived vicariously through Kofi Annan, having, we believed, a stake in his being.


A Friend of Jamaica


The good thing, though, is that there was substance to that relationship and a sense that it was mutual. Peter Phillips, the opposition leader, for instance, described Kofi Annan as a friend of Jamaica who visited the island many times. He also made use of Jamaican talent at the highest level of the United Nations. Shortly after he became secretary general in 1997, he named the late Angela King, a long-time UN staffer, as his special adviser on gender issues and the advancement of women, a post she held until her retirement in 2004.

That appointment underlined an attempt to bring to the centre of global discourse issues affecting half of the world's often marginalised populations as part of a larger search for social and economic equity that was reflected in initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals and having the UN focus on issues such as climate change and human rights.

Herein reflects, in part, not only Mr Annan's humanity, but his capacity for reflection and a readiness to be guided by experiences of the past towards a better future.


A Product of the Institution


Unlike other UN heads who came to the post from outside the organisation, Mr Annan was a product of the institution, having joined the World Health Organization in 1962 and serving in many posts along the way. It is not easy to spend nearly a lifetime in a highly politicised and jostling institution like the UN and emerge with one's reputation totally unscarred.

Mr Annan's last job before becoming secretary general was as undersecretary for peacekeeping, including at the time of the 1994 Rwanda genocide and, a year later, during the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by ethnic Serbs. Especially in Rwanda, the UN was blamed for not doing enough to prevent the killings.

Years later, in assessing the UN efforts in the face of an unwillingness of member states to act, Mr Annan said: "I believed at that time that I was doing my best. But I realised after the genocide that there was more that I could, and should, have done to sound the alarm and rally support. This painful memory, along with that of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has influenced much of my thinking, and many of my actions, as secretary general."

The quality of those actions is reflected in the many successes Kofi Annan enjoyed as head of the foundation that bears his name and as chairman of The Elders group, which was established by Nelson Mandela to pursue peace and decent governance around the world. Nonetheless, Mr Annan's legacy will remain complex and nuanced. But on its broadest sweep, as the present secretary general, Antonio Gutteres, put it, Kofi Annan was "a guiding force for good".