Annan focused on human element

Times Staff Writer

Secretary-General Kofi Annan says that he will keep working until midnight tonight, when his 10-year tenure as the world's top diplomat officially ends. But he has already begun reflecting on his achievements, frustrations and failures as a leader who embodies the world's ideals, and as a man who often could not escape his limitations to make those ideals a reality.

Although it is sometimes debated whether Annan, 68, was more "secretary" or "general," he was mostly an idealist. He would like to be remembered, he said this month, as the leader who pushed the world to agree to intervene to stop genocides, and to try to cut poverty in half. He sought to make the U.N. about people, not just geopolitics.

But he was often overwhelmed by the details of managing a gargantuan organization that kept the peace in 18 countries and once ran the entire economy of Iraq. His management lapses were blamed for the subversion of the $64-billion oil-for-food program in Iraq, as well as a wave of corruption scandals and sexual exploitation by peacekeepers under his watch.

Recognizing the need to update the 60-year-old institution, Annan proposed sweeping reforms that would make the U.N. better able to deal with the new threats and challenges of the 21st century. But he was stymied by a group of developing countries, which saw the changes as a loss of power, and by the U.S., which had its own vision of how to revamp the world body.

At a Security Council luncheon six weeks after he launched his reform plan, Annan jokingly apologized for not yet having finished the reorganization. Russian Ambassador Sergei V. Lavrov piped up and said, "Mr. Secretary-General, what are you complaining about? You have had more time than God!" Annan responded, "You are right, but God started with one great advantage -- with a clean canvas, and without a Security Council and a General Assembly."

Annan, the son of a chieftain from Ghana, was christened "Anthony" but was known by the name Kofi, which means "born on Friday." He joined the bottom ranks of the U.N. in 1962 and didn't plan to stay longer than four years, he said. But he quietly rose through the institution to head the peacekeeping department. In December 1996, the Clinton administration pushed him as its candidate to replace Boutros-Boutros Ghali, the outspoken Egyptian secretary-general it deemed a liability to U.S. interests.

Annan was chosen because he was an African who knew the U.N. system, and had proved that he was pragmatic and effective and could work with the United States when he oversaw peacekeepers in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Haiti. But most important, he did not have a political agenda or an overweening ego that could put him in conflict with the U.S. By the end of Annan's decade, however, he grew to be a quiet but compelling challenger to Washington.

First, a honeymoon

Annan's first five years in the wood-paneled office at the top of the shimmering U.N. headquarters were a honeymoon of sorts. Annan's manner is gentle, and nonconfrontational, and he is so soft-spoken that he can hardly be heard without a microphone. When perturbed, his voice gets lower, not louder. When anxious, he clenches his jaw and twists his large gold ring. That demeanor gave him a kind of regal aloofness, and a gracious yet distant charm that served him well as a nonpartisan mediator, but sometimes made him seem to lack fire.

He and his Swedish wife, Nane, the elegant niece of Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg, traveled around the U.S. and the world, giving a human face to an otherwise impersonal institution and imparting Annan's belief that every person has equal rights, and that a government's duty is to protect them.

Annan introduced the doctrine of "humanitarian intervention" -- that borders should not shield governments that cannot or will not protect their own people. The idea was born in part of his feelings of impotence and guilt as the head of peacekeeping during massacres in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica and in Rwanda that the U.N. did little to stop. Although some countries initially resisted, in 2005, 191 leaders endorsed "the responsibility to protect," something Annan considers one of his top achievements.

For championing human rights and development, and "for bringing new life to the organization," Annan and the U.N. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. He became known as "a diplomatic rock star," and the spotlight seemed to shine on the U.N. as a central stage in world affairs.

But the second half of his tenure would be much darker.

Sept. 11

The Sept. 11 attacks made the Bush administration more determined to strengthen national security -- but, Annan later argued, at the expense of multilateralism and human rights. In 2002, President Bush challenged the Security Council to confront Iraq or stand aside, and while the U.S. attempted for six months to gain the U.N.'s stamp of legitimacy for its long-planned invasion, it ended up going into Iraq without it.

Annan cited the failure to stop the Iraq war as the worst moment of his career.

"I really did everything I could to try to see if we could stop it," he said, including desperate rounds of phone calls and meetings with every leader he could reach, with every proposal he could think of. In April 2003, weeks after the invasion began, Annan literally lost his voice.

He seemed to lose his nerve as well, taking weeks off with what was described as "a very bad cold," but what aides described later as a sort of depression or "paralysis of despair. " He returned, somewhat diminished but determined to make the U.N. the kind of institution that the U.S., or any other country, would find indispensable.

Washington went into Iraq without the U.N.'s blessing, but it also had to do without significant U.N. help in rebuilding the country, an essential piece of postwar planning that the administration had assumed the world body would take on. Annan did send a team of his best and brightest, including his close friend and diplomatic icon, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Another one of the most painful moments of his career came in August 2003, when the bombing of the U.N.'s headquarters in Baghdad killed 22 people -- many of whom he had personally asked to go. De Mello was among those slain.

Those deaths "hit me as much as the loss of my twin sister," Annan said this month. His sister, Efua, died in 1991 after an illness.

Annan's career and the image of the U.N. would sustain another heavy blow in 2003 when revelations surfaced of payoffs and subversion of the oil-for-food program. Saddam Hussein had constructed a massive kickback scheme to siphon billions from the U.N.-run aid program; Security Council members, including the U.S., quietly allowed the diversions, considering it the cost of keeping weapons materials out of Hussein's hands.

An 18-month investigation led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker found that Annan was responsible for grave mismanagement, and charged several staff members with conflict of interest, but found "no evidence" of wrongdoing by Annan.

Yet the inquiry left questions unanswered about Annan's meetings with executives from Cotecna, a Swiss firm that employed his son Kojo and that won a $10-million contract three months after the company officials' last meeting with the secretary-general.

'Best place on Earth'

Annan will leave office with many of his reforms unfinished, with no magic words to help his successor, Ban Ki-moon, reconcile the divisions between the rich and poor nations, between Washington and its opponents, between ideals and reality.

Though Annan acknowledged that "SG" often seemed to stand for "scapegoat," he also said "it is the best place on Earth to be."

In his valedictory speech to the General Assembly in September, he said: "Together we have pushed some big rocks to the top of the mountain, even if others have slipped from our grasp and rolled back.... And while I look forward to resting my shoulder from those stubborn rocks in the next phase of my life, I know I shall miss the mountain."

maggie.farley@latimes.com

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