Kofi Annan, an African lion

Kofi Annan, former United Nations secretary-general, died last week at the age of 80. Annan was, in the words of current U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “a guiding force for good.” It is telling that Annan — with the U.N. — won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, only halfway through his tenure as secretary-general. When he left the world body, he continued, perhaps with even more vigor, efforts to bring peace to troubled areas and to help develop Africa, his native continent. It was a remarkable life, one rendered even more impressive by the restraint and reserve that marked his career — especially given the bombast and spectacle that so many of today’s leaders prefer.

Annan was born a twin in the Gold Coast, a British colony that became Ghana, the descendant of tribal chiefs on both sides of his family. He won a scholarship to study at Macalester College in Minnesota, where he received a B.A. in economics. That opened the door to a job as a junior administrative and budget officer at the World Health Organization in 1962.

What he originally assumed would be a temporary stop became a career. He worked his way up the U.N. bureaucracy, winning the attention of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1990 for winning and then organizing the release of 900 U.N. personnel and dependents held hostage in Baghdad as well as the airlift of thousands of Asian workers back to their homes as hostilities appeared imminent. Two years later, he was named deputy chief of peacekeeping, one of the most important jobs in the entire U.N. structure; he later became head of that department. In that capacity, Annan presided over the record expansion of peacekeeping operations to 75,000 troops deployed in 19 missions.

Annan presided over one of the organization’s most shameful failures — the 1994 episode in Rwanda when a handful of U.N. peacekeepers stood aside as genocide occurred. Annan was personally stained by the incident: A memo had gone out under his name three months before the slaughter that ordered the head of the peacekeeping unit to avoid any action that might lead to the use of force.

A year later he was in that post when the U.N. conceded that it could not stop mass killings in what was then Yugoslavia, and handed the authority of U.N. peacekeeping forces in Bosnia over to a NATO-led force. That failure long weighed on his mind. He later noted: “In looking back we shall all record how we responded to the escalating horrors of the last four years. And as we do so, there are questions that each of us will have to answer. What did I do? Could I have done more? And could it have made a difference? Did I let my prejudice, my indifference and my fear overwhelm my reason?”

His activism endeared him to the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton, which was disillusioned with Boutros-Ghali because of his refusal to take action against the perpetrators of genocide. Washington vetoed a second term for Boutros-Ghali, proposing Annan in his place. He became the seventh secretary-general, the first to come from its ranks and the first black African, and commenced a remarkable nine-year term during which he won, jointly with the world body, the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 “for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world.”

One of Annan’s most important accomplishments was his push — a product of the searing experiences of Rwanda and Bosnia — to reject the idea that sovereignty was an absolute shield against U.N. interference in a country’s internal affairs. His efforts culminated in 2005 in the articulation of the Responsibility to Protect, which argued that states that did not or could not protect their own people threatened international stability and the U.N. thus had a responsibility to intervene.

Annan’s term was not without problems. He was tarred by charges that the U.N. turned a blind eye to sanctions busting by Iraq; the investigation also revealed that his son had been hired by a company doing business under the sanctions regime. Annan was cleared and U.S. officials later acknowledged that they too had ignored the illicit trafficking. He also fell out with the Bush administration over his criticism of the Iraq War.

His reputation only grew after he left office. His criticism of the Iraq War appeared prescient. And he remained deeply engaged in peacemaking, joining and then heading the Elders, a group of global leaders working for human rights, all while working tirelessly to promote development in Africa.

Annan much appreciated Japan’s international diplomacy. He embraced and pushed Japan’s vision of comprehensive security when he backed the Millennium Development Goals. He applauded the Tokyo International Conference on African Development and Japan’s work at the Group of Eight to put Africa in the spotlight. In these and other efforts, he focused relentlessly on his goals and engaged all who could assist him. As Guterres said, Annan “provided people everywhere with a space for dialogue, a place for problem-solving and a path to a better world.”