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The Legacy of Kofi Annan

Abi Williams publishes research on the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, in Global Governance.

Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, combined a realistic humility about the UN’s purposes with bold and visionary leadership, thereby maximizing the organization’s potential where it had a special role to play. His tenure as Secretary-General should remind us that realism about the UN’s deficiencies does not entail fatalism about the opportunities it presents. He dealt with the three principal tasks of any Secretary-General: management of conflict; management of the organization; and initiation of ideas, policies, and norms. Unusually for a Secretary-General, he fulfilled all of these tasks with equal skill.

UN member states have little appetite for an independent and activist Secretary-General. Nonetheless, by his Charter-defined mandate and inclination, Annan worked tirelessly to elevate conflict prevention on the global agenda through his speeches, statements, and reports to the General Assembly and the Security Council, as well as by his diplomatic initiatives. He saw the prevention of deadly conflict as being of vital importance to the fate of humanity in the new century. He sought to move the UN “from a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention," and articulated what this should and can mean in practice. Through his efforts, the UN system was better organized to engage in coordinated preventive activities.

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