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One of the World's Most Celebrated Diplomats Is Dead

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was 80
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 18, 2018 6:30 AM CDT
One of the World's Most Celebrated Diplomats Is Dead
In this Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010 file photo former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan speaks at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa.   (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

(Newser) – Kofi Annan, one of the world's most celebrated diplomats and a charismatic symbol of the United Nations who rose through its ranks to become the first black African secretary-general, has died. He was 80. His foundation announced his death in Switzerland on Saturday in a tweet, saying he died after a short unspecified illness. "Wherever there was suffering or need, he reached out and touched many people with his deep compassion and empathy," the foundation said. Annan spent virtually his entire career as an administrator in the United Nations. His aristocratic style, cool-tempered elegance, and political savvy helped guide his ascent to become its seventh secretary-general, and the first hired from within, reports the AP. He served two terms from Jan. 1, 1997, to Dec. 31, 2006, capped nearly mid-way when he and the UN were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. Read on for more on Annan, his legacy, and the story of his name:

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  • During his tenure, Annan presided over some of the worst failures and scandals at the world body, one of its most turbulent periods since its founding in 1945. Annan took on the top UN post six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and presided during a decade when the world united against terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks—then divided deeply over the US-led war against Iraq. The US relationship tested him as a world diplomatic leader.
  • "I think that my darkest moment was the Iraq war, and the fact that we could not stop it," Annan said in a February 2013 interview with TIME to mark the publication of his memoir, Interventions: A Life in War and Peace. "I worked very hard—I was working the phone, talking to leaders around the world. The US did not have the support in the Security Council," Annan recalled in the videotaped interview posted on The Kofi Annan Foundation's website. "So they decided to go without the council. But I think the council was right in not sanctioning the war," he said. "Could you imagine if the UN had endorsed the war in Iraq, what our reputation would be like? Although at that point, President (George W.) Bush said the UN was headed toward irrelevance, because we had not supported the war. But now we know better."
  • Despite his well-honed diplomatic skills, Annan was never afraid to speak candidly. That didn't always win him fans, particularly in the case of Bush's administration, with whom Annan's camp spent much time bickering. Much of his second term was spent at odds with the United States, the UN's biggest contributor, as he tried to lean on the nation to pay almost $2 billion in arrears.

  • Kofi Atta Annan was born April 8, 1938, into an elite family in Kumasi, Ghana, the son of a provincial governor and grandson of two tribal chiefs. He shared his middle name Atta—"twin" in Ghana's Akan language—with a twin sister, Efua.
  • He became fluent in English, French and several African languages, attending an elite boarding school and the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. He finished his undergraduate work in economics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1961. From there he went to Geneva, where he began his graduate studies in international affairs and launched his UN career.
  • Annan married Titi Alakija, a Nigerian woman, in 1965, and they had a daughter, Ama, and a son, Kojo. He returned to the US in 1971 and earned a master's degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. The couple separated during the 1970s and, while working in Geneva, Annan met his second wife, Swedish lawyer Nane Lagergren. They married in 1984.
  • Annan worked for the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Ethiopia, its Emergency Force in Egypt, and the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, before taking a series of senior posts at UN headquarters in New York dealing with human resources, budget, finance, and staff security.
  • He also had special assignments. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, he facilitated the repatriation from Iraq of more than 900 international staff and other non-Iraqi nationals, and the release of western hostages in Iraq. He led the initial negotiations with Iraq for the sale of oil in exchange for humanitarian relief.
  • Just before becoming secretary-general, Annan served as UN peacekeeping chief and as special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, where he oversaw a transition in Bosnia from UN protective forces to NATO-led troops. The UN peacekeeping operation faced two of its greatest failures during his tenure: the Rwanda genocide in 1994, and the massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995. In both cases, the UN had deployed troops under Annan's command, but they failed to save the lives of the civilians they were mandated to protect. Annan offered apologies, but ignored calls to resign by US Republican lawmakers. After became secretary-general, he called for U.N. reports on those two debacles—and they were highly critical of his management.
Read much more on Annan here. (Read more Kofi Annan stories.)

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