Given the secretive, supremely political process by which a UN secretary general is chosen – the successful candidate is invariably the person who least offends the five permanent members, or P5, of the security council – appointees can always take comfort in the knowledge that nobody expects very much from them. They are chosen, in a very real sense, to be underwhelming.
For the P5, an independent-minded figurehead with aspirations to throw his or her weight around – or, worse, to challenge or defy their will – would suggest a failure of due diligence. The nine holders of the office have been capable and idealistic men (all have been men), but they have undeniably been more secretary, less general. The obvious exception was Dag Hammarskjold, the swashbuckling Swede who died in a mysterious plane crash in Africa in 1961.
But a more recent aberration was Kofi Annan, the two-term secretary general who died last week at the age of 80. Annan, the Ghanaian who led the bureaucracy through a tumultuous decade from 1997, had the CV of the ultimate company man. Born into an aristocratic family in what was then, in colonial times, Gold Coast, the soft-spoken, patrician diplomat with a US education was a UN lifer who had spent decades in administrative posts at the Manhattan headquarters before emerging as Boutros Boutros-Ghali's successor.
Confines of his office
But the qualities that endeared Annan to the P5 co-existed with others that would enable him to rise above the considerable confines of his office and project himself as the voice of the world’s conscience.
With his charisma, his preternatural calm, his acute political antenna and his ability to articulate moral indignation, he managed to reinvigorate the UN at a time when it faced some of the biggest threats since its foundation. His tenure, remember, encompassed 9/11 and George W Bush's "war on terror", the invasion of Iraq, the oil-for-food scandal and the killing of the UN's representative in Baghdad, Sérgio Vieira de Mello.
Obituarists have understandably focused on Annan’s ability to navigate those storms. But while Annan reminded the UN and the world outside of its potential as a force for good, his failures underlined the flaws and limitations of the institution in profound ways. He embodied the UN – its best and its worst. To highlight design flaws is not to exclude personal liability.
The writer Philip Gourevitch wrote this week about Annan's "curious mixture of grandiosity and unaccountability", suggesting that while he "fancied himself as a great leader" he was "constitutionally incapable of accepting the burdens that great leadership entails."
Gourevitch is the author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Children, a stunning account of the Rwandan genocide. And Annan's legacy will remain inseparable from that harrowing event. He was the UN's head of peacekeeping from 1993 to 1997, a period that saw the killing of 18 American soldiers in Somalia, the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica in 1995 and the killing of more than 800,000 Rwandans.
‘Provoke a civil war’
In January 1994, Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general who was in charge of the UN mission in Rwanda, informed New York of an informant's report of plans to "provoke a civil war" and to kill Belgian peacekeepers to spook the UN mission into withdrawal. The informant said he was involved in drawing up lists of Tutsis and suspected it was an "extermination" list. Dallaire sought permission to act on the intelligence and seize arms caches in Kigali.
However, Annan’s office replied to instruct Dallaire not to act but to follow protocol and share the information with Rwanda’s president - the head of the party Dallaire believed was planning the murders.
Underlying this week's reflections on the Annan era is the fear that it represented a high-water mark
“Three months later, in April of 1994, everything that Dallaire described in his warning took place, and in the course of a hundred days around a million Tutsis were massacred,” Gourevitch writes.
In fairness to Annan, he expressed a sense of institutional responsibility for Rwanda. Dallaire spoke highly of Annan. So did Samantha Power, who wrote a scathing book, A Problem from Hell, about the world's failures in preventing genocide. Reflecting on the period, Annan said he believed "Rwanda was a victim of Somalia", so scarred was the US in particular after the 'Black Hawk Down' killings in Mogadishu.
If the UN had given Dallaire the go-ahead, Annan later remarked, the ensuing violence would have led to the security council closing the mission. He denounced western powers for not doing enough to intervene, and played a big role in the adoption of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine – the idea, accepted by all UN member states in 2005, that sovereignty entailed a duty to protect populations from atrocities and human rights violations. His critics, however, find it hard to forgive Annan’s reluctance even to reflect publicly on what he might have done differently.
It’s striking that Kofi Annan was the last secretary general to seem like a central player in an international drama. Today, amidst the revival of populist demagoguery, multilateralism and international law are under real threat. Underlying so many of this week’s reflections on the Annan era is the fear that it represented a high-water mark, and that the virtues he stood for are in long-term retreat.