In every generation we depend on a few people of supreme decency and intelligence to hold the world together. In Jewish tradition, there are at all times 36 tzadikim, righteous people, without whom the world would perish.
Kofi Annan was one of the righteous people, a man of extraordinary intelligence, decency, warmth and joy of life. He helped to keep our world from blowing itself apart.
Annan brought the UN into the 21st century with a momentous two terms of office between 1997 and 2007. I was privileged to work for Kofi, first as an adviser on an economic report, then as director of a commission at the World Health Organisation, and then as his special adviser on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) from 2001-2007.
Kofi’s core idea was that our interconnected world requires economic justice, peace and human rights. He would often say that there could be no development without security, no security without development, and neither security nor development without human rights.
He saw the need for the world to join together to end poverty and war and protect human dignity. He believed that the UN was the institution that could support these immense ambitions, and he made it his life’s work to fashion a UN for our times. He inspired others to devote ourselves to the work of the UN.
He championed the moral charter of the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most poignantly, urgently and successfully, he put the world’s focus on the least among us.
Kofi’s greatest achievement for the poor was to mobilise global energies to fight poverty, hunger and disease through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which he put forward to the world’s governments at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000.
With the persuasive powers of a consummate diplomat, Kofi signed up the world to this great mission. Extreme poverty declined rapidly during the MDG period, from 37 per cent in the 1990 baseline year to below 10 per cent at the MDG finish line in 2015.
I watched Kofi’s persuasive powers on full display in early 2001 when we worked together to launch a new Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. He made an inspiring call for the new Global Fund in Abuja, Nigeria, in April 2001.
Just a few weeks later, I watched the TV in amazement as Kofi joined George W. Bush in the White House for the President’s announcement that the US would become the first country to join the new Global Fund. To date, the Global Fund and its partners have saved more than 20 million lives.
Yet Kofi’s second term would also face the nightmare of the US war on Iraq. After 9/11, the Bush White House immediately took aim at Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein.
Kofi implored Saddam to let the UN arms inspectors do their work to check whether the regime had abandoned weapons of mass destruction and implored the US to give the inspectors time. Kofi strongly urged the US to seek the approval of the UN Security Council for any military action against Iraq.
The US pressures on Kofi were nearly unbearable. The White House was determined to overthrow Saddam, no matter the evidence or lack thereof, and irrespective of the UN Security Council.
Kofi paid a heavy personal price for standing up to the US. When he declared that the US action in Iraq was against international law, the response from prominent Republicans was swift and unrelenting, attacking Kofi professionally and trying to smear him personally by going after his son’s business dealings. The attacks reflected the US at its worst, Kofi at his bravest, and the UN at its most vulnerable.
Kofi never retired. That’s why his death is so shocking. There was no physical or mental decline, no retreat or slowing down in old age. Kofi worked tirelessly around the world with his unmatched diplomatic skills to save lives, tamp down conflicts, avoid the spread of war.
Kofi Annan inspired and protected us – all too often from our own worst instincts and flawed judgments. He taught us the inestimable value of diplomacy, the art of finding common ground by listening to and respecting others. There was no finer practitioner of such exalted decency in our time. —The article was first published on CNN