Kofi Annan, the first black African to lead the United Nations, has died at age 80. He served as Secretary-General at a time when worries about the Cold War were replaced by threats of global terrorism, and his efforts to combat those threats and secure a more peaceful world brought him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Annan, who was born in Ghana in 1938, served as the seventh UN Secretary-General, from 1997 to 2006, and was the first to rise from within the ranks of the United Nations staff.
He had also been a member, since 2007, of The Elders, a humanitarian group of a dozen leaders and activists of worldwide stature formed by Nelson Mandela. In 2013, Annan became its chairman.
The Kofi Annan Foundation confirmed his death with “immense sadness” in a statement posted on Twitter.
Annan passed away peacefully Saturday morning after a short illness, with his wife Nane and their three children by his side during his final days, the statement said.
The foundation paid tribute to Annan as a “global statesman and a deeply committed internationalist who fought throughout his life for a fairer, more peaceful world.”
“During his distinguished career and leadership of the United Nations, he was an ardent champion of peace, sustainable development, human rights and the rule of law.”
Annan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the United Nations in 2001 “for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world.”
Despite his many achievements, Annan’s record was not unblemished. He was head of the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations in 1994, when some 800,000 people were killed in the Rwanda genocide, and in 1995 when thousands of Muslim men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica.
Annan would later say that he should have done more to prevent what unfolded in Rwanda, and that events there and in Srebrenica had reshaped his global thinking.
Annan was descended from tribal chiefs on both sides of his family. After studying in Ghana and at Macalester College in St. Paul, in the US state of Minnesota, he joined the United Nations in 1962 as a low-ranking officer with the World Health Organization in Geneva.
He thought he would stay only a few years but ended up spending almost his entire working life with the organization.
While leading the UN’s peacekeeping operations, Annan was involved in decisions that were potentially career-ending but which he managed to survive.
In 1994, the UN Security Council and others including Annan were accused by the UN field commander in Rwanda of ignoring his warnings, which resulted in the world’s reluctance to send troops in and the estimated 800,000 deaths.
Speaking in 2004, Annan said: “I believed at the that time that I was doing my best, but I realized after the genocide that there was more that I could have and should have done.”
The next year, another moment came with the thousands of Muslims who were massacred in Srebrenica as Bosnian Serbs overran a UN “safe zone.”
The Secretary-General at the time, Boutros Boutros Ghali, took the heat for UN failings in two of the darkest episodes of its history. Subsequent UN reports about the body’s handling of the massacres were critical of Annan’s leadership.
Champion of human rights
On taking the helm as Secretary-General in 1997, Annan became a high-profile figure who championed human rights and urged the United Nations to protect civilians if their own governments turned on them.
His first term was highly-rated but his second term, which coincided with the US invasion of Iraq, was not as smooth.
Annan would later call the assault illegal. “I think the worst moment of course was the Iraq war, which as an organization we couldn’t stop — and I really did everything I can to try to see if we can stop it,” he said, speaking in 2006.