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The passion of Kofi Annan The past few years have been bruising for the soft-spoken UN Secretary-General. As SHAWN McCARTHY reports, the next few weeks could determine his legacy

The past few years have been bruising for the soft-spoken UN Secretary-General. As SHAWN McCARTHY reports, the next few weeks could determine his legacy

UNITED NATIONS

he autumn of his days at the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan hoped that this month would bring the crowning achievement of his long career -- an agreement among the world's leaders to rewrite the world body's mission and to overhaul its archaic management structure.

Instead, September of 2005 is threatening to become a disaster for the 67-year-old, soft-spoken, Ghanaian diplomat, who seeks to match his Nobel Peace Prize with a permanent legacy.

This week, the investigative committee headed by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker issued its long-anticipated report on the oil-for-food scandal that struck at the very heart of Mr. Annan's administration. The report was not the unmitigated horror that it might have been: Despite some nasty allegations and embarrassing circumstantial evidence, Mr. Volcker cleared the Secretary-General of engaging in outright corruption.

But the Volcker panel blasted Mr. Annan's lax management and his lapses in judgment as he failed to rein in colleagues illicitly profiting from the program, as well as his own son. Mr. Volcker said the Secretary-General failed to "carry out the responsibilities of his office."

The damning report could not have come at a worse time. Next week, Mr. Annan will host 150 world leaders, including Prime Minister Paul Martin and U.S. President George W. Bush, for a summit that he hopes will endorse far-reaching reforms to the United Nations.

Should he fail, Mr. Annan would be left to salvage what he could of his reform agenda, maintain day-to-day operations and limp through the remaining 18 months of his 10-year tenure.

Mr. Annan released his set of proposals last spring, and judged their adoption critical to the future of the UN. They include a tough new definition of terrorism, a revamped human-rights committee, clear guidelines on the UN's use of force to keep peace or protect people from ethnic cleansing or genocide by their own governments, and a commitment to specific actions to reduce global poverty and greenhouse-gas emissions.

The internal changes would give the secretary-general more power to manage the vast bureaucracy. At present, it often requires the approval of the General Assembly to cut staff or realign resources.

It now appears that Mr. Annan may have overreached. Handicapped by oil-for-food, he has been unable to win broad support in the UN's fractious chambers for his proposals for a fundamental shift in the organization's makeup and mission. As a result, he may also lose the opportunity to undertake critical internal reforms.

With a week to go, it remains possible that a meaningful deal can be wrought -- one that would embrace the administrative reforms recommended by Mr. Volcker and Mr. Annan himself.

Even his supporters say the world leader has been too preoccupied with the scandal as ambassadors from member countries haggle over the reform package.

"He's been completely distant from the process," said one diplomat at the UN, who spoke on condition he not be named. "It could have stood a blast of [the] Secretary-General's involvement, but it hasn't been there. Now, it looks like it could all come crashing down around his ears, and that would be a very sad end."

Mr. Annan insisted this week that he will not resign his post, as his most vociferous critics on the Republican right have demanded.

But some wonder how he would cope with another major setback.

For 2½ years, he had led the UN through a series of crises that not only battered the organization, but also touched him personally and profoundly, including his son's role in the scandal and the death of a close friend who was working for the UN in Baghdad.

There has been talk at the UN's East River building that the toll has begun to tell on Mr. Annan, that there have been days when he moves about as though shrouded in an oppressive fog, or doesn't function much at all. Last winter, according to UN insiders, he attended some functions looking dazed, although of late he has appeared healthier and more vibrant.

Edward Luck, a professor at Columbia University who has long followed the UN, said he expects Mr. Annan to survive until the end of his term in early 2007, but with a lame-duck status and badly reduced political capital.

Mr. Annan was the first UN Secretary-General to be chosen from within the institution itself, and the first from sub-Saharan Africa. The son of a wealthy merchant family that was descended from tribal chieftains, he was educated in boarding schools in Ghana. He studied in the United States and Europe on scholarship, eventually earning a master's degree in management from the Sloan Business School at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1962, Mr. Annan took his first UN job as an administrative and budget officer at the World Health Organization. With the exception of a two-year stint as managing director of the Ghana Tourist Development Corp., he has spent the rest of his career at the UN, initially in administrative and management jobs.

In 1992, he moved to the peacekeeping operation, where he learned first-hand the devastating consequences when the UN puts national sovereignty ahead of saving people. As deputy secretary-general in charge of peacekeeping, he presided over two of the most disastrous chapters in UN peacekeeping history -- the genocide in Rwanda and the massacre in the "safe haven" of Srebrenica by Serb forces in Bosnia.

While experts blame the Security Council powers for refusing to intervene in Rwanda in 1994, Mr. Annan has acknowledged some responsibility for failing to heed warnings of the impending explosion of ethnic warfare there.

He has also shouldered some blame for the collapse of havens when Bosnian Serb forces overran UN peacekeepers and massacred civilians -- although, again, there was no Security Council support to take on the Serbs.

Despite those setbacks, Mr. Annan was widely seen as a capable manager and adroit diplomat. He oversaw the expansion of the UN's peacekeeping role beyond the traditional job of maintaining a buffer between previously warring states, to intervening in conflicts where an aggressor had to be stopped before peace could be kept.

Ironically, given current U.S.-UN tensions, Mr. Annan began his term as Secretary-General regarded by the bulk of the UN membership as the U.S.'s handpicked replacement for Boutros Boutros-Ghali, whom the Americans saw as too confrontational and aloof.

But it didn't take long for Mr. Annan to annoy American supporters who expected the gentlemanly UN lifer to be, as one writer put it, more secretary than general.

He defied them over Iraq, which was then blocking UN weapons inspectors, and over the Senate decision to reject a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Among the outraged was John Bolton, then a director at the American Enterprise Institute.

"I think if he continues down this road, ultimately it means war, at least with the Republican Party," Mr. Bolton told The New York Times that year. Mr. Bolton, of course, is now serving as U.S. ambassador to the world body.

But it wasn't just the Americans who were unhappy with Mr. Annan's independence. After his demoralizing experiences with the limits of UN peacekeeping, he embraced the controversial notion that governments could not hide behind national sovereignty and avoid sanction when brutalizing their own people.

Canada's former UN ambassador, Stephen Lewis, recalled seeing Mr. Annan early in his tenure addressing a meeting of the Organization of African Unity and hammering away on the issue of human rights and the limits of sovereignty.

"You could see that the leaders of the OAU -- the presidents that were there -- were seething and he didn't equivocate for a second," said Mr. Lewis, who has served as Mr. Annan's special representative on HIV/AIDS.

Early in his term, Mr. Annan pushed through some modest reforms to the UN secretariat. Since then, however, he has made little progress in streamlining the hidebound UN bureaucracy -- in part because of members' resistance and in part because he prefers to avoid confrontation, even with his own employees.

One notable success came in 2000 when he engineered a consensus for the adoption of the so-called millennium goals to reduce global poverty -- a commitment that he is trying to have ratified at next week's summit.

In 2001, he and the UN were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Price, in recognition of his commitment to human rights, his challenges to the world's vast disparities of wealth and his aggressive championing of global action on HIV/AIDS. In the intervening years, however, he has achieved only spotty success in transforming those principles into action.

Since early in 2003, Mr. Annan has led the UN through a series of crises that have all had very personal implications for the Secretary-General. The UN was rent by the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which split the Security Council and which Mr. Annan himself has criticized as illegal.

Six months after the invasion, Brazilian-born diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello -- one of Mr. Annan's closest friends and his potential successor -- was killed along with 21 others in a terrorist bombing on UN headquarters in Baghdad. The Secretary-General had approved their mission in Iraq despite concerns they could not be protected.

Mr. Annan also battled with only limited success to galvanize the Security Council into action on Darfur, where militia backed by the Sudanese government were engaged in ethnic cleansing of local villagers, raising the spectre of his past failures on Rwanda and Srebrenica.

And then there has been the ongoing oil-for-food investigation, which revealed that trusted colleagues had abused their positions; that Mr. Annan's son, Kofo, had traded on his father's position for profit, and that the Secretary-General himself was loosely implicated in conflict of interest relationships.

Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN and an admirer of the Secretary-General, said Mr. Annan has allowed himself to be diverted by the scandal.

Mr. Heinbecker noted that politicians like Mr. Bush soldier on despite vehement, personal attacks that can cut deeply. "A little bit more of that would have been called for in these circumstances," he said.

"But he's a highly intelligent, very sensitive guy and he has been personally hurt -- he thought he was doing the right things and doing the best job he could and he isn't a guy who is able to deflect the criticism the way some political leaders are."

The next week will reveal whether he has retained enough political capital to retool the 60-year-old organization for the 21st century.

Shawn McCarthy is The Globe and Mail's New York bureau chief.

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