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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager - Cyber Security

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Manager for Cyber Secur...

Ashdown Group: Service Desk Analyst - Application Support - Central London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Service Desk Analyst (App...

Ampersand Consulting LLP: 3rd Line Support Engineer (Windows Server, Exchange Server)

£35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: 3rd Line Support Engine...

Investigo: Finance Analyst

£240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ice skating in George Square, Glasgow  

How many Christmas cards have you sent this year?

Simon Kelner
 

Al-Sweady Inquiry: An exercise in greed that blights the lives of brave soldiers

Richard Kemp
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum