“The international community is guilty of sins of omission. I myself, as head of the UN’s peacekeeping department at the time, pressed dozens of countries for troops. I believed at that time that I was doing my best,” he said. “But I realized after the genocide that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support. This painful memory, along with that of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has influenced much of my thinking, and many of my actions, as secretary-general.”
Indeed, his forceful support, while still heading the UN’s peacekeeping operations, of NATO’s airstrikes in Bosnia in 1995, all but ensured that the U.S. would support his candidacy to replace Boutros Boutros-Ghali as the UN’s top diplomat in 1996.
Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian author, in a review of Annan’s autobiography, Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, called Annan at once “agreeable and remote,” but added that “doesn’t explain how he managed to keep his reputation intact while rising up through nether regions of the UN bureaucracy—human resources and budgeting—where nepotism and mismanagement were notorious.”
“This ascent demanded a polite but ruthless care of his own reputation, together with an ability to distance himself from trouble. Along the way he deeply internalized the moral rhetoric of the institution and never let its dreary reality drain away his idealism,” Ignatieff wrote, adding: “When he accepted the Nobel Prize awarded jointly to him and the UN in 2001, he seemed to many the most complete incarnation of its ideals of any secretary-general who ever lived.”
At the UN, Annan, a Ghanian who spent his entire career at the institution, oversaw a period of reform, outlined an ambitious agenda to reduce global poverty, and set up a global fund to combat HIV/AIDS. But the experiences of Rwanda and Srebrenica prompted Annan in 1999 to question the role of the international community in protecting civilian populations.
“Just as we have learned that the world cannot stand aside when gross and systematic violations of human rights are taking place, so we have also learned that intervention must be based on legitimate and universal principles if it is to enjoy the sustained support of the world’s peoples,” he said. “This developing international norm in favor of intervention to protect civilians from wholesale slaughter will no doubt continue to pose profound challenges to the international community.”
“Any such evolution in our understanding of state sovereignty and individual sovereignty will, in some quarters, be met with distrust, skepticism, even hostility. But it is an evolution that we should welcome. Why? Because, despite its limitations and imperfections, it is testimony to a humanity that cares more, not less, for the suffering in its midst, and a humanity that will do more, and not less, to end it. It is a hopeful sign at the end of the twentieth century.”