UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Once known as a diplomatic rock star, Kofi Annan, who leaves office as United Nations secretary-general on Sunday after a decade on the job, exudes dignity, compassion and modesty -- qualities that make him easy to romanticise.
But after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, he faced mounting bad news -- the war in Iraq which he opposed, lingering questions on U.N. scandals, deteriorating ties with the Bush administration and U.S. right-wingers calling for his head.
“Words he spoke during first three or four years were the single most important and the most lasting: human rights and a humanitarian agenda,” said James Traub, author of a recent book on Annan, “The Best Intentions.”
“In the second term, virtually everything failed that he tried to do or things that were done to him,” Traub said.
Annan, a 68-year-old Ghanaian and career U.N. official, lists his main achievements as establishing the concept of a responsibility to protect civilians when their rulers will not or cannot. He also ranks high his struggle against poverty.
“In a world where you have extreme poverty and immense wealth sitting side by side, it’s not sustainable,” Annan said pointing to the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals, that set targets to reduce poverty and raise educational levels.
His worst moments, Annan said, included not being able to stop the bloodshed in Sudan’s Darfur, the oil-for-food debacle and the Iraq war, after which he lost his voice for months.
Then came the most painful event -- the bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003 that killed 22 people after Annan had decided, at the urging of the United States, to send senior U.N. staff back to Iraq.
“It hit me almost as much as the loss of my twin sister,” Annan told his last news conference, his voice choking. Efua Annan died of an illness in 1991.
In 2003, the oil-for-food scandal also broke, with Saddam Hussein having bilked the $64 billion program designed to relieve the pain of U.N. sanctions on ordinary Iraqis. The sanctions were imposed after Baghdad’s troops invaded Kuwait.
While few U.N. officials were accused of enriching themselves, the world body was blamed for lax management and not blowing the whistle on Saddam’s tactics.
Annan admitted mismanagement and said the “scandal, if any, was in the capitals and with the 2,200 companies that made a deal with Saddam behind our backs.” The affair was the subject of an 18-month inquiry, headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.
But critics say the world body underestimated the seriousness of the scandal as well as questions that remain to this day about Annan’s son, Kojo, who worked for a firm that received a large contract under the program.
“They tend to think of it as a couple of people made mistakes in the secretariat,” said Edward Luck, a Columbia University professor and U.N. historian. “It is missing the point. The U.N. has to be held to higher standards and the secretary-general has an obligation to be doubly vigilant on these kind of things.”
For conservatives, the scandal was an illustration of the uselessness of the United Nations. But the United States, regardless of which party is in office, is often frustrated with the United Nations when it opposes U.S. policies.
Annan was the Clinton administration’s candidate after it vetoed his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, citing a lack of U.N. reform -- the same charge made against Annan.
With his dazzling Swedish wife Nane, Annan had been -- and often still is -- the subject of admiration throughout the world. But his ties with Washington ran hot and cold after the Iraq war and his relations with ex-U.S. Ambassador John Bolton bordered on hostile.
Still, Annan produced studies and proposals for reforms, beginning with his treatise, “In Larger Freedom,” that integrated human rights, development and security.
And in his last year in office, he regained his confidence, negotiating Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, criticising the United States for unilateralism, rebuking supporters of the Palestinians for tying up the U.N. General Assembly with endless resolutions and chastising everyone for lack of action in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Musing over his time in office, Annan told his last news conference the U.N. should not be judged by its scandals.
“The U.N. is a U.N. that coordinates tsunami relief, a U.N. that deals with the Kashmir earthquake, a U.N. that is pushing for equality and ... a U.N. that is fighting for human dignity and the rights of others,” he said.
His successor, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, will probably say less and lead a United Nations aware of its limitations and the small space any secretary-general has to manoeuvre.
And now? The Annans intend to live in Europe and in Ghana, where he wants to set up a foundation on African agriculture.
But for the immediate future, Annan said: “I‘m going off to live ‘In Larger Freedom.'”