From 1961-1962, Kofi Annan was a student at the Geneva Graduate Institute. In his letter of motivation to the Institute, Kofi Annan wrote: “I have chosen to come to Geneva for two definite reasons. Firstly, Geneva is an international city and could serve as a laboratory where I could observe international politics in play. Secondly, my admission to the Institute would enable me to learn and polish my poor French”.
After graduating, Annan joined the United Nations (UN) system, where he eventually became its seventh Secretary-General. A prominent Ghanean diplomat, he was an embodiment of everything the UN stands for during his tenure from 1997 to 2006. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the UN in 2001 for his efforts towards the promotion of peace and human rights worldwide. During his acceptance speech, he noted that “Peace must be sought, above all, because it is the condition for every member of the human family to live a life of dignity and security”.
One of Annan’s main priorities as Secretary-General was reforming and revitalising the UN to make the international system more effective. He was a constant advocate for human rights, the rule of law, the Millennium Development Goals, and Africa, and sought to bring the international organisation closer to the global public by forging ties with civil society, the private sector and other partners.
In 1997, Annan was promoted to Secretary-General from his previous position as Under-Secretary-General, taking over from Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Annan was criticised for his passivity during the Rwandan genocide, for which he later apologised in 1999. Reflecting on an instinctive caution, he rightly responded that it was unfair to blame just the UN rather than also the Security Council powers. “It was an issue of policy, not of lack of knowledge”, he said, further underscoring that the knowledge was present but not the action. America in particular, he highlighted, was suffering from peacekeeper fatigue after the debacle in Somalia.
But Annan was unquestionably troubled by his record in Rwanda. “Yes, Rwanda was painful. What could I have done differently? I often wonder. If I had shouted from the rooftops to say that the situation is so desperate thousands may be killed, would it have made a difference? Probably it was worth a try.” In 1998, he visited the Mulire Genocide Memorial in Rwanda.
In 1998, the UN Secretary-General met with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in an attempt to reach a peaceful solution to the stand-off between Iraq and the UN. By getting Saddam Hussein to agree to a protocol allowing UN inspectors to visit any suspect site in Iraq, Annan appeared to have defused the crisis.
"I am pleased to announce that after detailed and intensive discussions with the Iraqi authorities, culminating in a meeting with President Saddam Hussein, I have reached an agreement with Iraq on the issue of inspections", Annan said without revealing the precise content of the initial text. “In my view, the terms of this written agreement are acceptable and remove a major obstacle to the full implementation of Security Council resolutions", he added. “I hope that all members of the Security Council will accept it. I sincerely believe that if we cooperate and implement what we have decided, we will not see this kind of crisis again".
In 2006, Kofi Annan conferred with former President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg and toured Soweto, where he laid a wreath at a memorial for one of the first victims of the uprising there thirty years prior.
In 2007, Kofi Annan became President of the World Organisation Against Torture, which is the largest international coalition of NGOs active in the protection of human rights in the world (with 282 members in 92 countries). The Organisation contributes to raising awareness for the erosion of respect for human rights and international standards, particularly in the context of the fight against terrorism and security policies. Annan also chaired the African Progress Panel, which brings together international personalities committed to defending the African continent.