BY: CHRISTINA ZYGAKIS
With 193 member states, the United Nations Organisation may be considered representative of the larger body of people and states within the international system. Consequently, the individual who occupies the position of the UN Secretary-General holds a representative role as well; a role which is required by the UN Charter to remain independent and uninfluenced by governments or other actors. Kofi Annan, like many of his predecessors, lived up to the standards set forth by the U.N. Charter.
As the seventh UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan stayed in office between 1997 and 2006. This was a very turbulent period for numerous regions of the globe, including sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East.
Meisler’s experience with Kofi Annan began while the former was a UN correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and the latter was made an Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations reporting to Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Meisler met Annan during a casual period of his career at the UN Secretariat, permitting the journalist to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the former Secretary-General. According to some, this experience led Meisler to look into Annan through a sympathetic prism concerning events that stigmatized his image as Secretary-General.
Meisler’s book narrates Kofi Annan’s personal life and career from the time he spent in Ghana as a secondary school student to the time he left office as UN Secretary-General. Coming from a privileged social and educational background, Annan joined the UN in 1965, as an administrative officer for the UN Economic Commission for Africa. As a UN officer, he was decisive and innovative, considering diplomacy to be the principal weapon against armed conflict. This strong commitment to conflict prevention and resolution helped him earn the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.
The author also analyses the most important crises in which Kofi Annan played a crucial role- the genocide of Rwanda, the crisis in Bosnia, the genocide of Kosovo, the Gulf wars of 1999 and 2003 as well as the crisis in East Timor.
As Meisler puts it, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia was the tragic occasion that placed Annan on the course to lead the office of the UN Secretariat. Whereas NATO had received an authorization from the Security Council to begin the allied bombings, the Secretary-General refused to provide the permission needed to proceed. One day, while Boutros-Ghali was heading to a meeting far from the UN headquarters and was inaccessible, Annan gave the permission for the intervention. With this act, he demonstrated that he had the necessary open-mindedness and decisiveness to become the next UN General. This act also initiated the successful American-led campaign to actually place him at the helm of the UN.
Meisler defends Annan regarding the genocide of Rwanda, which led to a loss of over a million human lives and exposed the entire UN system as inflexible and inefficient. The UN Peacekeeping Department, led by Annan at the time, received serious and reliable, on-the-ground evidence from UN Officers about a potential genocide, such as an arms cache belonging to the Hutu militia group Interhamwe, the compulsory registration of every Tutsi who lived in Kigali, as well as the scattering of 1,700 men in groups around the Rwandan capital city. Annan, Meisler argues, was not in a position to receive and handle the respective cables in person, yet he was blamed for not preventing the civil war that drew the attention of the entire international community.
The author digs deep into Annan’s personal life too, with a particular focus on incidents related to his work in the UN. It is worth mentioning that the scandals with Mercedes Corporation and the “Oil for Food” programme, in which Annan’s son Kojo was a protagonist, exposing his father within the UN system and the global public opinion. The Secretary-General was ruthlessly attacked by his critics both on a professional and a personal level.
It is assumed that the 2003 war in Iraq was the cause of America’s change of attitude towards Annan. The Secretary-General did everything possible to avert Bush’s decision to invade, a decision that had been taken on the grounds of democracy before it became an issue for the UN as a matter of international security. Annan’s efforts to keep the Bush administration’s actions peaceful resulted in the latter unsuccessfully doing everything possible to remove him from office, even before the expiration of his first term as a UN Secretary-General.
Meisler’s biography of Kofi Annan is an excellent piece of literature for everyone who studies International Relations and particularly for those who are training to be diplomats because it provides key insights into the difficulties of navigating the diplomatic space. Most importantly, it captures the human factor- decision-makers are humans like everyone else and like other people commit mistakes or go through tribulations. Kofi Annan might not have been perfect, but, he was undoubtedly one of the UN Secretaries-General who served the mission of the UN Charter. Stanley Meisler undoubtedly captures the essence of Kofi Annan- with the means that he had and the obstacles that he faced, he did everything that he could to protect civilians caught amidst the political ambitions of violent regimes.
Christina Zygakis is an International Relations scholar based in Crete, Greece. She has a BA in International & European Studies from the University of Piraeus, as well as an MA in Diplomacy and an MA in War and Contemporary Conflict from the University of Nottingham.
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