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.
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: