Kofi Annan’s illustrious career as the “rock star of international diplomacy”

Not all glamour.
Not all glamour.
Image: Reuters
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Kofi Annan, who died Saturday (Aug. 18) at age 80, was once described by former US ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke as the “rock star of international diplomacy.”

During a career that spanned almost half a century at the UN, Annan worked at some of the global body’s crucial departments, and as secretary-general, he used the agency’s modest resources to redefine its ambitions and effectiveness. During his decade-long tenure at the top (1997-2006), Annan rallied against piecemeal reforms, worked to align the UN’s mandate with the changing times, and advocated for increased global cooperation.

The Ghanaian diplomat was credited with raising the level of consciousness around issues including poverty, maternal mortality, the AIDS epidemic, human rights, counterterrorism, and the importance of peacekeeping. Under his leadership, the UN won accolades for handling East Timor’s road to independence and the cessation of conflict in Kosovo. But as under-secretary-general for peacekeeping in the early 1990s, Annan equally faced criticism for the UN’s failures in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia.

Kofi Annan of Ghana (front L) takes the oath of office as the new United Nations Secretary General from U.N. General Assembly President Razali Ismail of Malaysia (front R) at U.N. headquarters December 17. Kofi Annan is to succeed outgoing Secretary General-Boutros-Boutros-Ghali of Egypt whose term expires December 31. People at rear are unidentified. - PBEAHUMYSDY
Kofi Annan takes the oath of office as the UN secretary-general.
Image: Reuters

The Nobel laureate was also the UN’s sharpest critic, always urging—and at times rebuking—member states to renew their commitment to global peace. Throughout his work, the career bureaucrat came to understand the shortcomings of diplomacy and the drawbacks of military interventions—even when they saved lives (paywall). But Annan’s lasting impression on the world stage would be his belief in the power of people and institutions when they stood together to advance good.

In a speech to the Human Rights Commission (now the Human Rights Council) in 2005, he emphasized the need to strengthen and enshrine universal ideals that would protect all humankind.

“For too long now, we have indulged this view of our own capabilities. But the gap between what we seem to promise, and what we actually deliver, has grown. The answer is not to draw back from an ambitious human rights agenda, but to make the improvements that will enable our machinery to live up to the world’s expectations.”

Here’s a look back at the rock star’s career in photos:

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (L) and Iraq's President Saddam Hussein hold talks to defuse a crisis over United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq February 22. Annan's spokesman said after the talks he was on the verge of a breakthrough. IRAQ - RP1DRIFPRWAC
With former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Image: Reuters
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan (C) reviews troops along with Polisario Front chief Mohamed Abdelaziz (R) upon arriving to a Polisario refugee camp in Smara, Western Sahara, November 30. Annan said after talks with Polisario Front leaders that he had won a "clear yes" from them on his peace plan to resolve the long-running Western Sahara dispute. ES/CLH/ - RP1DRIFRGXAF
Visiting the disputed territories of Western Sahara in North Africa.
Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides (L) shakes hands with the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash as United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan looks on (C) at the outset of high level negotiations at the Troutbeck Guesthouse in Amenia New York, July 9, on a long-stymied peace process to reunite the Island of Cyprus. The two sides are scheduled to meet through July 13 at the rural retreat 90 miles north of New York City. TALKS CYPRUS - RP1DRIDZAWAB
Dealing with the long-stymied peace process to reunite the Island of Cyprus.
Image: Reuters
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki (L) shakes hands with opposition leader Raila Odinga (C) while former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (R looks on shortly after signing a contentious power sharing deal on 28 February 2008. Kenya's rival leaders signed a power-sharing deal mediated by Kofi Annan to end the country's post-election crisis which killed over 1500 people and left 600,000 displaced.
Resolving the 2008 post-election crisis in Kenya.
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan (L) and Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan (R ) meet with a Palestinian family during their tour at Hitteen Palestinian refugee camp near Amman March 18. Annan on the first leg of a nine-day tour of the Middle East is expected to discuss latest regional developments with its leaders.
Meeting with a Palestinian family during a tour at Hitteen Palestinian refugee camp near Amman, Jordan.
Image: Reuters
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan (L) meets with Charles G. Taylor, President of the Republic of Liberia at the Hilton Hotel in Abuja July 1. Annan also met detained Nigerian opposition politician Moshood Abiola on Wednesday as intense backroom diplomacy continued to secure his release, a senior Nigerian official said. vm/U.N. VM/SV/ME - RP1DRIGBLSAB
Meeting with Charles G. Taylor, former president of Liberia, who is currently serving a 50-year sentence at the Hague.
Image: Reuters
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan consoles family members of victims of last April's massacre by pro-Indonesia militia in Liquisa, 30 km west of DIli February 17. At least 50 people were killed after pro-Indonesian militia and Indonesian soldiers attacked hundreds of refugees seeking shelter in a church compound. - PBEAHULNMCC
Consoling family members of victims of a massacre by pro-Indonesian militias in Liquisa, East Timor.
Image: Reuters
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan (L) and Korean Foreign Minister and President of the General Assembly Han Seung Soo show their medals and certificate during the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo December 10, 2001. Annan received the centenary Nobel Peace Prize alongside the United Nations.
Receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
Image: REUTERS/Pool/Heiko Junge