Last Sunday, Kofi Annan passed away at the age of eighty.
Serving for nearly half a century at the United Nations, Annan would, in the latter half of his career, emerge as one of the body’s premier diplomats. He would command all UN peacekeeping forces throughout the 1990s and would be elected twice to the most senior office of Secretary–General, where he would serve as the world’s top-diplomat from 1997-2006.
A refined and stately man, Annan’s leadership in the diplomatic arena would earn him international renown, far-reaching influence, and even a Nobel Peace Prize, which he accepted jointly with his organization in 2001.
Annan was, to many, something of a global moral authority, and the world is solemnly mourning his loss. Even the State of Israel, which had an often tense relationship with Annan throughout the second Palestinian intifada and second Lebanon War, expressed sorrow at his passing, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalling him “as someone who fought antisemitism and Holocaust denial.”
These praises were more than diplomatic protocol. Annan had assumed leadership at a complicated time — one marked by the implications of the Soviet collapse, fast-tracked globalization, and the blood-drenched rise of Islamist terror. Annan was forced to navigate this rapidly changing world, and in so doing made a name for himself as a determined pursuer of peace.
Upon a man’s passing, it’s important to remember the best of their actions. But when it comes to ironing out the legacy of a world leader — one who played a particularly pronounced and pivotal role on the world stage — then our analysis ought to be a bit more candid.
After all, how we choose to evaluate Annan’s leadership will inevitably affect the policies, priorities, and values of those Secretary Generals who will undoubtedly seek to emulate him. And now more than ever, the office of the Secretary-General seems to be in dire need of guidance.
The UN in general, and the office of secretary-general in particular, have been continually waning in stature and influence. Gone are the days where every war or crisis would be seen through the lens of the UN’s opinion of it. A genocidal war has been raging for seven years in Syria, with hundreds of thousands murdered in its wake, and rarely if ever do the secretary-general’s words on the matter earn so much as a mention in the international media.
On the contrary, the current secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, has only confirmed his irrelevance by perpetuating the circus-like anti-Israel slug-fest that has become the modern UN. Just last week, Guterres suggested that the UN deploy an armed force Gaza to “ensure the safety of the civilian population” from Israeli forces.
With Hamas having sparked four rounds of conflict in under ten years, it’s precisely the removal of arms from Gaza that would give its inhabitants a chance at real peace. Becuase Hamas has been using UN-sponsored schools and facilities as caches within which to store their arms, Secretary-General Guterres should be the first to say it.
The secretary-generalship is need of guidance. And, thus, even as we warmly remember Annan, we must also be sure to promote the truth about his legacy, particularly the fact that it was stained by some of the costliest mistakes of the last fifty years.
First and foremost was Rwanda, where under Kofi Annan’s personal watch, the greatest genocide since the Holocaust was allowed to take place. Annan was, at the time, the commander of all UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda. In January 1994, the local UN commander in Rwanda, General Romeo Dallaire, warned Annan directly and in writing that an inside source had informed him that Hutu militiamen were drawing up lists of all Tutsi inhabitants in Kigali, much in the way the Nazis had done with the Jews in Europe. “He suspects it is for their extermination,” Dallaire wrote in the cable, which explicitly mentioned that “[Hutu] personnel could kill up to a thousand Tutsis” in as little as “20 minutes.”
Dallaire asked only for permission to confiscate illegal weapons caches, which he very correctly assumed would be used in a genocide. He had the forces to do it, but Annan, in a letter under his name and signed by his personal deputy, forbade him from doing anything but pass on the information to the Rwandan government — which was run by those very men preparing then genocide.
Three months later, the killings would begin, and nearly a million Tutsis would be killed in a low-tech slaughter by Hutu militias. All throughout, Annan would do nothing to stem the killings — though he was the only man with the on-the-ground means to do it.
More ignominious than Annan’s failures in Rwanda was his refusal to take responsibility for them. Annan repeatedly hemmed and hawed when asked to accept accountability for his glaring failures. When asked by reporters about the cable from Dallaire and his incomprehensible inaction, he dismissed it as an “old story that is being rehashed,” adding that he had “no regrets.” When he finally did apologize, he obscured his own guilt behind the collective: “All of us must bitterly regret that we did not do more to prevent it,” he said (my emphasis).
Unfortunately, Annan’s inability to combat evil was not limited to the tragedy of Rwanda.
The massacre at Srebrenica also took place on his watch, with his own UN peacekeepers present in the city at the time of the slaughter.
He also met personally with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, despite the latter’s genocide against the Kurds just a decade before, where he killed up to 180,000 innocent civilians, many of them with poison gas. Annan, at the time, claimed that he was meeting Saddam to prevent a conflict. But even if that justified the meeting, Annan didn’t have to sip orange juice and smoke cigars with the one of the world’s most evil leaders. Even more shocking were his attempts to flatter the tyrant as the “builder” who “built modern Iraq,” when in truth the entire edifice of Saddam’s Iraq was founded upon ethnic oppression and unprecedented brutality.
Ultimately, Kofi Annan made indifference to evil a hallmark of his executive tenure at the UN. And if such blindness to evil continues to be enshrined as a virtue, the moral authority of the UN is bound to continue along its path to decay.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 32 books including his new book, Lust for Love, co-authored with Pamela Anderson. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.