Leading article: A decent man who took on an impossible job

Share

It is impossible not to like and admire Kofi Annan, as he prepares to step down after 10 years at the helm of the United Nations. The first Secretary General to come from within the ranks of the world body, he is a transparently decent man, who has championed the cause of human rights more vigorously than any of his predecessors. There have been scandals on his watch, most notably the sexual harassment charges against Ruud Lubbers, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the mismanagement of the oil-for-food programme with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But they have not lastingly sullied his reputation.

Mr Annan has been nobody's stooge - neither of the US, whose invasion of Iraq he called illegal, nor of the Third World countries who view the UN's newfound emphasis on human rights as neo-colonialism by another name. Insofar as it is possible for a single individual to be "the conscience of the world," Mr Annan has filled that role perhaps better than any of his predecessors.

But like them, he could not escape the realities of the job. The UN Secretary General heads no government and commands no armies. His authority is moral, his greatest power is that of the bully pulpit. Perhaps Kofi Annan on occasion did not speak from that pulpit loudly and forcefully enough. But even if he had, it would have made little difference.

The UN is ultimately no more than the sum of its parts, the 200-odd member countries. It is only as effective as its most important members - essentially the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council - want it to be. And for all the platitudes about national boundaries dissolving in this age of globalisation, powerful countries have no intention of handing over serious sovereignty to the UN - or only under circumstances where the UN can be counted upon to support what they want to do.

The invasion of Iraq, the most blatant affront to the organisation during Mr Annan's tenure, illustrated this reality perfectly, as the US, the lone superpower, launched the war despite its failure to secure the consent of the UN, and the overwhelming disapproval of most of the rest of the world. Or take the genocides of the past two decades, which have been the greatest blot on the UN's reputation. The mass murders in Rwanda in 1994, at Srebrenica a year later, and now in Darfur, might have been prevented if the UN's members had given the organisation the means to do so. Yes, Mr Annan might have warned earlier and more vigorously about the unfolding genocide in south western Sudan. The fact of the matter, however, is that China, one of the "Big Five", has consistently blocked efforts to bring the government in Khartoum to account.

Plainly, the UN must be reformed. Mr Annan has made some modest progress in improving the organisation's bureaucracy. But the overhaul of the Security Council which he has proposed has yet to be put into effect. Until it is, the Council will continue to reflect the world as it was in 1945, not in 2006, with all the loss of representative legitimacy that implies.

In his valedictory speech yesterday in the US - the single country with whom smooth relations are most important if the UN is to function properly - he made the point eloquently. For all its imperfections, the UN offers the world the best hope of equitable governance, as a place where states can hold each other to account. It was especially important therefore, to organise it "in a fair and democratic way, giving the poor and the weak some influence over the actions of the rich and the strong". That is Mr Annan's dream. A dream, sadly, it is likely to remain.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to adapt and survive

Nigel Edwards
 

Letter from the Sub-Editor: Canada is seen as a peaceful nation, but violent crime isn’t as rare as you might think

Jeffrey Simpson
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?