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Looking Back at 10 Years of UN Leadership by Kofi Annan

Kofi Annan of Ghana is stepping down as United Nations secretary-general at the end of this month. He became the U.N.'s seventh secretary-general on January 1st, 1997. Replacing Egyptian Boutros Boutros Ghali, he became the first U.N. staff member elected to lead the international organization, and he won unanimous approval for a second five-year term in 2002. As Mr. Annan's time in office draws to a close, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon was elected to succeed him.

VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at Mr. Annan's 10 years of U.N. leadership.

Many experts say Mr. Annan leaves a mixed legacy. On the one hand, his quiet dignity made him a strong voice for individual rights, for development and the poor. Some even called him the conscience of the international community, and the United Nations and Mr. Annan shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.

On the other hand, Mr. Annan could not persuade member states to agree to his plan for sweeping U.N. reforms and his reputation was tarnished by the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal.

Those who study the United Nations say one of Kofi Annan's greatest triumphs was persuading member states to agree on a principle known as "the responsibility to protect."

Karl Inderfurth, a former deputy U.S. representative on the U.N. Security Council, says the principle addresses the issue of intervening in cases of genocide or ethnic cleansing, such as in Rwanda. "So what do you do, though, when a government is not protecting its own people? What do you do when there is no rule of law -- like in Somalia, where you've got competing factions? What do you do when there is, as we saw in Rwanda with genocide - what do you do to protect those who need protection within a country?

The doctrine that Kofi Annan championed, that the world's nations have the "responsibility to protect" those who are helpless in the face of power or tragedy, has now been accepted by the United Nations. Inderfurth says, however, the key issue is how do you implement it? He sees that as one of the principal challenges facing Ban Ki-moon.

Kofi Annan also won the United Nations' approval of a new Human Rights Council, intended to deter human-rights abuses around the world. But the secretary-general did not succeed with another of his key proposals -- adding new members to the 15-nation U.N. Security Council.

Demands for greater representation are coming from Brazil, India and other countries in the developing world. Stewart Patrick, a U.N. expert with the Center for Global Development, says enlargement of the Council is vital to maintain the United Nations' influential role throughout the world. "But in this case, although it probably was the most disappointing aspect of U.N. reform that there was no movement on the Security Council, this responsibility has to be laid first and foremost to the member states, as opposed to the secretary-general himself."

The low point of Mr. Annan's tenure was the corruption scandal surrounding the U.N.-managed Iraqi oil-for-food program. Set in motion after the first Gulf war, this was intended to control oil sales by Saddam Hussein's regime.

Although this was supposed to lessen the hardship that Iraqi civilians were suffering as a result of U.N. sanctions, it became clear that a huge portion of the oil profits was being siphoned off by Saddam and his allies. An independent inquiry, led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, found widespread corruption within the United Nations and by contractors.

Stewart Patrick says the oil-for-food scandal tarnished Kofi Annan's reputation enormously. "He has been subjected to a witch-hunt, which to some degree continues. It's been particularly popular amongst inveterate U.N. bashers, both in the media and on Capitol Hill. The important thing that came out of the very exhaustive examinations of this question by Paul Volcker and his commission, is that there was no broad-based malfeasance, on the part of the secretary-general or those working most directly with him."

The report did find that Kofi Annan failed to exert control over the oil-for-food program, and it called for wide-ranging internal reforms at the U.N. The secretary-general took personal responsibility for the management failures.

Mr. Annan has been looking back on his 10 years in charge of the United Nations. He says he has learned five key "lessons" during that time.

"First, we are all responsible for each other's security. Second, we can and must give everyone the chance to benefit from global prosperity. Third, both security and prosperity depend on human rights and the rule of law. Fourth, states must be accountable to each other and to a broad range of non-state actors in their international conduct."

Mr. Annan's farewell speech on December 11th was delivered to an American audience, at the museum and library in Independence, Missouri, that honors former U.S. President Harry S. Truman.

“My fifth and final lesson derives inescapably from those other four. We can only do all these things by working together through a multilateral system, and by making the best possible use of the unique instrument bequeathed to us by Harry Truman and his contemporaries -- namely, the United Nations."

Mr. Annan leaves to his successor, South Korean diplomat Ban Ki-moon, a United Nations in the midst of change. It will be Mr. Ban's challenge to continue Mr. Annan's reforms, while also addressing the world's most pressing problems.