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Remembering Kofi Annan

By Kumi Naidoo, kuminaidoo

Ghana has lost one of its finest sons, Africa has lost a giant, and the world has lost a moral compass. This is a time of grieving not only for those who knew him well, but for countless people across the world whose lives were touched by the life he so exceptionally led. As a fellow African and a leader working for peace and justice, I count myself privileged to be among their number.


First and foremost, I would like to share my deepest condolences with his wife Nane and the rest of the Annan family. But I would also like to pay this tribute to Kofi Annan from the perspective of civil society and the struggles in which we are engaged – struggles which were engraved on his heart throughout his life.

Kofi Annan would often remind us of the Preamble of the UN Charter, which begins, “We the peoples of the United Nations” – the peoples, not the nation-states or governments. That the UN existed to serve the people was for him a first principle
Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International


During his time as UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan would often remind us of the Preamble of the UN Charter, which begins, “We the peoples of the United Nations” – the peoples, not the nation-states or governments. That the UN existed to serve the people was for him a first principle. He recognised that good governance was best served by an inclusive approach, not solely left to governments. This was his motivation for strengthening the UN’s agenda to elevate a whole range of voices from civil society, from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), to trade unions, to faith groups.


His commitment to the poor was unshakeable because it was deep and personal. He fought hard to secure the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including by some powerful countries who were initially resistant. He was always brutally honest about both the promise of the MDGs and about their limitations, describing them as the “minimalist development goals”, and always strove for better. He took the bold step of tackling HIV/AIDS at a time when it was heavily stigmatised, and his efforts helped to give the issue the recognition it deserved as the major health issue of our time. Financial investment poured into research and development to combat its spread, including among poor pregnant mothers and babies. Like Amnesty International’s slogan, “taking injustice personally”, he took poverty, injustice and inequality very personally, and was deeply affected by them.


He was a champion of the struggle against climate change, which he rightly recognised not only as an environmental issue, but as one with huge implications for the economy, peace, security, and gender equality. He knew that averting catastrophic climate change was not about saving the planet but protecting our children and their futures. In keeping with his lifelong preoccupation with those who are most vulnerable, he was especially concerned with its impacts in Africa, in small island states, and in the Least Developed Countries. He gave the issue the priority it demanded while he was UN Secretary-General, but also continued to work on it as a core priority after he left the UN.


His commitment to peace was equally unwavering. While he should have been enjoying his retirement, he mustered the energy and fortitude to continue pushing for peace in many of the conflicts raging around the world. As Chair of the Elders, he played a key role in Kenya and other places experiencing conflict. And one of his most recent endeavours was in seeking to secure peace and justice for the Rohingya people of Myanmar.

Kofi Annan’s life will remain an inspiration to all of us struggling for a world that is safer, fairer, more just and more inclusive.
Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International


He would be the first to acknowledge that his record was not perfect, including sadly in Rwanda. But often, any shortcomings were result of some of the most powerful countries in the world standing in his way. One of his regrets was that after playing a key role to develop the six-point peace plan in 2012, he had to resign his position as the first Joint Special Envoy of the UN and Arab League when his plan was confounded by powerful countries putting their geopolitical interests ahead of the lives of the Syrian people. He was hoping that his work would bring a sense of urgency and sanity; that it did not come was not his failing. In the case of Iraq, he was a wise voice not only echoing the demands of international law and convention, but reading and understanding global public opinion, including in the countries pushing for war. Had we listened to his counsel, countless lives could have been saved.


While he loved the UN and was deeply committed to its ideals of human solidarity and justice, he knew all too well its limitations and its democratic, compliance, and coherence deficits. When questioned about how the UN Security Council was governed, he had the courage to say that the UN was stuck in the geopolitics of 1945. He fought hard for reform of the UN Security Council, but it is an unfinished battle.

As we remember Kofi Annan, we owe it to his memory not only to pay tribute to his legacy but to take up the struggles which he fought – struggles on behalf of some of the poorest and most vulnerable and marginalised people in the world. We live in times which demand the type of bold leadership which he typified.


The world needs a UN which is inclusive and effective, and world leaders must be ready to pick up the challenge and secure reforms to the Security Council. As climate change continues to wreak devastating consequences, prevarication must give way to ambitious action. At a time when respect for the laws of war have eroded dramatically and civilians suffer horrific consequences, leaders must be bold in imagining the possibility of peace with justice, and tenacious in struggling for it. And in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to see real action and accountability to ensure that nobody is left behind.


I am sure that I echo the sentiment of many people across civil society, whose voices he sought to amplify in the struggles for peace and human rights, and in combating climate change. His passing is a great loss not only to the African continent which gave him to the world, but to all the people in these movements who loved and supported him.
Kofi Annan’s life will remain an inspiration to all of us struggling for a world that is safer, fairer, more just and more inclusive. We will miss him, but we will not forget him. May he continue to inspire us to show the moral courage that the world so desperately needs at this moment in history.

Kumi Naidoo

Kumi Naidoo is a life-long social justice campaigner hailing from South Africa