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YOU ARE HERE > COMMUNITY > ETHICS > REFERENCE > INTEREST > PEOPLE > KOFI ANNAN
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Kofi Annan: Biographical Note By Phyllis Bennis

On January 1, 1997, Kofi Annan became the seventh Secretary General of the United Nations. His election followed a bitterly-contested United States veto of a second term for his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt. The Security Council recognized it was still Africa's "turn" in the UN's highest office, and eventually selected the U.S.- and French-backed Annan, a soft-spoken Ghanaian then heading the UN's Peacekeeping Department.

Annan proved an innovative and surprisingly independent Secretary General - far less in thrall to the US than many had anticipated. Though his choices are severely limited by the UN's financial crisis and by unrelenting pressure from the US and other major powers, Annan has won widespread support and learned to maximize his options. He moved quickly to reassert UN centrality in emergencies across the globe.

UN staffers have been largely delighted with their new chief, and morale within the organization soared. Annan, the first black African Secretary General and the first to rise to the top position from within the ranks of the UN staff, is appreciated not only for his political acumen, but for his respect for and willingness to work collaboratively with his colleagues.

Born in Ghana in 1938, Annan studied economics in Kumasi and earned a bachelor's degree at Macalester College in Minnesota in 1961. He did graduate work in Geneva and later earned a master's degree in management from MIT in 1972.

Annan joined the United Nations system in 1962, working in financial and management posts with the World Health Organization, the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, the UN Economic Commission for Africa, and at UN headquarters in New York. He headed the UN's Peacekeeping Department from 1993-1995, and again in 1996, during a period of unprecedented growth in the size and scope of United Nations peacekeeping operations. At its peak in 1995, the UN was fielding almost 70,000 military and civilian "Blue Helmets" from 77 countries.

During Annan's tenure as head of UN peacekeeping, many problems and tragedies arose, as international crises like Bosnia and Rwanda overwhelmed the UN's capacity and demonstrated the insufficiency of support from major member states. While Annan shared some responsibility, and characteristically apologized for his judgement errors, the main crises resulted not from Secretariat or secretary-general failures, but from the refusal of the major Security Council members to adequately respond and back the UN efforts.

When Annan came into office in 1997, he faced formidable challenges. The organization was near bankruptcy and it faced serious criticism and hostility in Washington. In his first weeks in office, Annan traveled to Washington to build support in the conservative Congress. He promised to shrink the UN's operating budget, asking in return that the U.S. pay its $1.6 billion in back dues.

Annan continued his predecessor's cuts in UN staff and budget. At the same time he introduced many management reforms - a new post of Deputy Secretary General, a new office of financial oversight to keep watch for waste and corruption, and a more efficient cabinet-style management. Still, the United States refused to pay its debts, prolonging the financial crisis and keeping Annan's UN very short of resources.

Faced with insufficient funds, Annan sought closer relations between the United Nations and the private sector. Amid some controversy, he joined the annual gatherings of corporate chief executives in Davos, Switzerland, and called for a strategic partnership between the UN and business. In 1999 he proposed "The Global Compact," nine principles on human rights, labor standards and the environment that corporations should adopt. At the same time, the UN muted its criticism of globalization and gave stronger support to corporate-friendly open markets. He thus also set the stage for broader alliances between the UN and its agencies and multinational corporations. Many critics have noted the tarnished environmental, labor and human rights records of some of these partner corporations. Critics are likewise skeptical about the threat to UN decision-making inherent in UN reliance on funds from private foundations, corporations or individuals like Ted Turner of CNN. But Annan and his team have been strongly committed to this course.

Annan has not hesitated to tackle other controversial issues. Opening the 1999 General Assembly, he spoke in favor of "humanitarian intervention," stating explicitly that national sovereignty could no longer shield governments that massively violate human rights of their citizens. Many developing countries, fearing that only weaker states would face such response, reacted negatively, but Annan has persisted in raising this issue, acknowledging the UN Charter's contradictions between sovereignty and human rights. In another controversial field, Annan increasingly spoke out about how economic sanctions against Iraq were causing the UN to be blamed for the humanitarian crisis facing the Iraqi population.

Under Annan, the UN has greatly increased its use of modern communications and he has pushed the organization to be more open and accountable. In 1999 the UN released major reports on disasters in Rwanda and Srebrenica, assessments that were painfully self-critical and set a new standard for UN evaluation and transparency. Annan is credited with promotion of women to higher posts in the organization. And he will likely be remembered for his effective management and personal diplomacy, and his warmth and charm in even the most difficult international crises.


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