CAMEROON, Cameroon вЂ” Kofi Annan left the United Nations far more committed than it had been to combating poverty, promoting equality and fighting for human rights вЂ” and until his death Saturday he was warning that the rise of nationalism could prevent countries from working together to solve problems.
As secretary-general of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006, Annan saw as his greatest achievements the programs and policies he put in place to reduce inequality within and between countries, to combat infectious diseases and to promote human rights and protect civilians from war crimes including genocide.
He launched the U.N. Millennium Development Goals at a summit of world leaders in 2000 to cut extreme poverty by half, promote equality for women, ensure every child has a primary school education, reduce maternal and child mortality, and halt the spread of AIDS вЂ” all by 2015.
Those goals вЂ” only a few of which were fully achieved вЂ” were succeeded by an expanded list of U.N. Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 that adds issues such as climate action, affordable and clean energy, and promoting peace and justice. The updated list is a major focus of the U.N.вЂ™s current agenda.
As U.N. peacekeeping chief just before becoming secretary-general, Annan shared blame for the failure of U.N. troops he deployed to prevent the genocides in Rwanda in 1994 and in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.
When he became U.N. chief, Annan launched a doctrine of вЂњhumanitarian interventionвЂќ to prevent governments and leaders from massacring their own people. At a summit in 2005, over objections from some countries, 191 nations endorsed what has become known as the вЂњresponsibility to protectвЂќ civilians and head off the worldвЂ™s worst crimes, from ethnic cleansing to genocide. This doctrine is frequently cited вЂ” but to the dismay of U.N. officials, not often implemented.
Annan also saw as a major achievement the expansion of the U.N.вЂ™s work into partnerships with businesses, foundations, universities and civil society.
This led, for example, to the establishment of the Global Compact in 2001 where Annan asked corporate leaders to publicly commit to 10 principles in the areas of human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption. More than 9,000 of the worldвЂ™s leading CEOs have joined the compact, which continues to attract new members, and вЂњcorporate responsibilityвЂќ has become a key feature of the business world.
When Annan handed the reins of the U.N. to Ban Ki-moon, he said he would keep working on African issues, human rights, global warming and governance issues, and speak out from time to time when necessary. He told one farewell party: вЂњYou can take the man out of the U.N., but you canвЂ™t take the U.N. out of the man.вЂќ
Through his foundation and as a member and head of The Elders, the group of prominent former leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, Annan kept working вЂ” and speaking out.
At an editorial board meeting with The Associated Press in May 2017, he worried aloud about lost jobs and said many people worldwide had lost trust in political and corporate leaders and feared being left behind.
He said it was time for mainstream leaders to explain that innovation and artificial intelligence are taking away jobs and tell those who have lost jobs they are going to be retrained for the new economy thatвЂ™s coming.
вЂњIf we donвЂ™t encourage leaders, first of all fresh people, to go into politics and we donвЂ™t encourage the leaders to lead, we will create a situation which is normal,вЂќ he warned. вЂњWhen leaders fail to lead, the people lead and make them follow. But you donвЂ™t know where theyвЂ™re going to lead you to вЂ” and they might even pull you back.вЂќ
He also said U.S. President Donald TrumpвЂ™s go-it-alone foreign policy is weakening America, and stressed the importance of multilateralism and the perils of growing nationalism.
Only last month, Annan was tweeting about his concerns with the current state of the world.
вЂњNo nation can make itself secure by seeking supremacy over all others. We all share responsibility for each otherвЂ™s #security, and only by working to make each other secure can we hope to achieve lasting security for ourselves,вЂќ he said in a July 3 tweet that appeared aimed at the United States.
And on July 30, he tweeted: вЂњWhether our task is fighting #poverty, stemming the spread of #disease or saving innocent lives from mass murder, we have seen that we cannot succeed without the #leadership of the strong and the engagement of all.вЂќ
Annan believed in quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy but wasnвЂ™t afraid to speak out when he thought necessary. He mentored a generation of U.N. officials including current Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and outgoing U.N. human rights chief Zeid RaвЂ™ad Al-Hussein.
The Jordanian diplomat said in a statement he once told Annan how everyone was criticizing him, and the former U.N. chief responded: вЂњYouвЂ™re doing the right thing. Let them grumble.вЂќ
вЂњIn a world now filled with leaders who are anything but that, our loss, the worldвЂ™s loss, becomes even more painful,вЂќ Zeid said.
Edith M. Lederer has been APвЂ™s chief correspondent at the United Nations since September 1998.