SMALL STATES - Our series exploring how the UN and others can better serve these countries →

Kofi Annan’s Path to Humanitarian Intervention


Kofi Annan, who led the UN for 10 years, beginning in 1997, attending the Munich Security Conference in April 2018. He died suddenly on Aug. 18, 2018, at 80 years old, a day before the anniversary of the 2003 terrorist attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad. CREATIVE COMMONS

Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who died on Aug. 18, in Switzerland, was deeply committed to peace and the UN Charter, as well as human rights and humanitarian action. He led a debate about harmonizing these principles and rebalancing the sovereignty of countries with the rights of people within them. During his 10 years as secretary-general, which began in 1997, he established what he called a “new norm on humanitarian intervention,” redefining traditional notions of sovereignty.

Kofi Annan was a family friend, but I was still surprised on my first day with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, where I was a consultant on humanitarian advocacy, when the administrative assistant rushed into my office, excitedly saying, “The SG is calling.” In the middle of the spiraling crisis in East Timor, Annan took the time to reach out and welcome me to the UN, an institution he loved dearly.
From our regular meetings, I came to appreciate the depth of his commitment to humanitarian action, born from his UN experiences —and failings.

In 1994, when he was still under secretary-general for peacekeeping, Annan was accused of inaction as 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in full view of UN peacekeepers. A year later, 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebenica. Again, UN forces were present but failed to act.

Don't miss a  story,  Subscribe to PassBlue

“All of us must bitterly regret that we did not do more to prevent it,” Annan said in December 1999, after the release of an independent inquiry into the UN’s presence in Rwanda. At a memorial conference on the genocide, in 2004, he added, “This painful memory, along with that of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has influenced much of my thinking, and many of my actions, as secretary-general.”

In both instances, the UN’s credibility suffered. In his September 1999 address to the General Assembly, Annan spoke of the principle that “massive and systematic violations of human rights — wherever they may take place — should not be allowed to stand.” He added that “in the event that forceful intervention becomes necessary, we must ensure that the Security Council, the body charged with authorizing force under international law, is able to rise to the challenge.”

Kosovo, in 1999, represented such a challenge. The Security Council lacked unity. It was paralyzed when Serbian armed forces displaced almost one million ethnic Albanians, as Serbia pursued a course of criminal behavior with Russia’s diplomatic protection. Annan’s pleading that the US and Russia cooperate on upholding the principles of the UN Charter was ignored.

Regional bodies can take responsibility when the Security Council fails to act. Without a Chapter 7 resolution authorizing “all necessary measures,” Annan used the moral authority of his bully pulpit to proclaim that the cause was just and endorsed NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo.

NATO’s action heralded a new path in which countries intervene outside the established mechanisms for enforcing international law. Annan’s stance on Kosovo did not represent an abandonment of the UN Charter. He simply sought a practical way to protect civilians.

East Timor was the next test of the international community. In 1999, when Indonesia punished the people of East Timor for a vote on independence organized by the UN, Annan demanded that Indonesia seek help from the international community in meeting its responsibility to bring order and security. He insisted that Indonesia accept a multinational force to stabilize the situation. The Security Council acted in days to authorize a coalition of the willing.

In the same 1999 address to the General Assembly, Annan welcomed the evolution of the international system. State sovereignty was being redefined by the forces of globalization, interdependence and international cooperation.

“Why? Because, despite its limitations and imperfections, it is testimony to a humanity that cares more, not less, for suffering in its midst,” Annan said, “and humanity will do more, and not less, to end it.”

Despite his high-minded ideals, intervention is susceptible to manipulation. Think back to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was met with distrust, skepticism and hostility. In this instance, Annan called the Iraq war “illegal” and demanded that UN weapons inspectors have more time to do their work. The Bush administration ignored his entreaties, scorning the world body. Annan was wary of having the Iraq mess dumped on the UN, but he was a pragmatist and did not want the United States to fail. He believed that a weakened America would weaken the UN.

He sent Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a veteran UN diplomat from Brazil, to Baghdad as his special representative for managing Iraq’s reconstruction and political transition. Sérgio and 21 others were killed during a terrorist attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad, on Aug. 19, 2003. The UN was blamed for lapses in security management and suspended operations.

Annan usually sparkled with optimism. But in a conversation we had after the attack, Annan, recovering from the flu, was tired, downbeat and demoralized. Though distressed, he dispatched Lakhdar Brahimi, Algeria’s former foreign minister and a UN troubleshooter, to try to break the impasse over the formation of an Iraqi government. Their principled and valiant effort was unsuccessful.

Annan was not only practical but also resilient and innovative. He espoused a culture of prevention, championing tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to deter crimes against humanity by enforcing international justice. Annan embraced the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, or R2P — a 2005 global political commitment endorsed by UN member nations aimed at preventing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Annan’s UN career, which ran from 1962 to 2007, had highs and lows. Through it all, his actions were guided by compassion for victims and a commitment to peace. His legacy is profound. Along with creating a new norm for humanitarian intervention, institutionalized through R2P, he pioneered other protection strategies, including accountability as a deterrent.

When he retired from the UN, Annan became an elder and a “wise man,” concluding that prevention was more effective than dealing with the aftermath of violent conflict.

To support a free press and democracy, please donate to PassBlue, a nonprofit journalism site.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

David L. Phillips is the director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. He was a senior adviser for humanitarian advocacy to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 1999 and 2000.

We would love your thoughts. Please comment:

Kofi Annan’s Path to Humanitarian Intervention
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Related Posts


Global Connections Television - The only talk show of its kind in the world

Subscribe to PassBlue


Don't miss a story

Subscribe now to send the smartest news

on the UN directly to your inbox.

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously