Kofi Annan Bids Farewell to U.N. Duties

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Outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave a speech at the Truman Library in Missouri today. It was a chance to reach out to Americans after a tough tenure plagued by scandals, wars and a recalcitrant U.S. administration.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan went to the American Midwest today to give his farewell address, urging the United States to shun its go it alone approach. He chose the Harry Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri, to make his case because of Truman's support of the U.N. in its early days.

KOFI ANNAN: More than ever today Americans, like the rest of humanity, need a functioning, global system. The system still cries out for farsighted American leadership in the Truman tradition.

SIEGEL: Annan said his speech should not be read as a rebuke of the Bush administration, but it does cap a rocky relationship which was complicated by the war in Iraq. NPR's Michele Kelemen has this review of Annan's ten years at the helm of the U.N.

MICHELE KELEMEN: In the first term, he won a Nobel Prize. But by his second, Annan was hounded by scandals. Asked recently what his biggest regret was, the mild-mannered, career U.N. diplomat had an easy answer.

ANNAN: I still have to say it is the war in Iraq and that the debate and the discussions that took place in the council could not have helped us stop the war. I firmly believe that the war could have been avoided and the inspectors should have had a bit more time.

KELEMEN: The U.N. inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction. Annan called the war illegal. Eventually he did send U.N. officials back to Baghdad to help rebuild, but they quickly became the target of a deadly attack in August, 2003.

ANNAN: And these wonderful colleagues and friends offered to go only to be blown away, and that really hurt. It was very hard on me and my colleagues. It was very tough to digest and to accept.

STEPHEN SCHLESINGER: This was a body blow to the U.N. and it was a very depressing period for Kofi Annan.

That's Stephen Schlesinger, author of the book "At the Creation," about the founding of the United Nations. Although Annan is said to have gone through a period of depression after the Iraq war, Schlesinger says Annan managed to reestablish himself with the rest of the world as someone who stood up against America's go it alone approach.

SCHLESINGER: I think he came out looking better in that second term than the Bush administration did. All the virtues that he showed in the first term, his commitment to multilateralism, to human rights, to the notion of collective security, which were battered in the second term, turned out to be outstanding accomplishments of his final go round.

KELEMEN: But the war in Iraq soured his relations with Washington. Some members of Congress called for his ouster and pushed hard for a thorough investigation into the scandals plaguing the U.N. U.N. peacekeepers were accused of sexually exploiting women and girls in Congo, and U.N. bureaucrats were accused of taking kickbacks in the so-called oil for food program in Iraq. Republican Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota led the charge two years ago.

NORM COLEMAN: I think for the credibility of the United Nations, the guy who has been at the helm, who's been responsible, was responsible, needs to step down.

ANNAN: Hell, no.

KELEMEN: That was Annan's response in 2004, which he called a horrible year.

The past year wasn't any easier. The Bush administration sent a tough minded ambassador, John Bolton, to New York to shake up the U.N. as Annan tried to push through his own reform agenda. Security Council reform never took off, and Annan's call on nations to protect their citizens from genocide was sorely tested in Darfur, Sudan.

Adam LeBor, author of the book "Complicity with Evil," says Annan seems to be taking some lessons from Rwanda and Bosnia, when Annan was head of U.N. peacekeeping.

ADAM L: He has been more vocal on Darfur in the last couple of years. I believe he's quite haunted by what happened in Rwanda and the catastrophic failure of the U.N. in Rwanda. So his record on Darfur is more mixed.

KELEMEN: In his speech today at the Truman Library in Missouri, Secretary General Annan said the former U.S. president warned against merely paying lip service to inspiring ideas.

ANNAN: And when I look at the murder, rape, starvation to which the people of Darfur are being subjected, I feel that we have not got far beyond lip service.

KELEMEN: Darfur promises to be one of the central issues left to Annan's successor, South Korea's Ban Ki-moon, who's having dinner this evening with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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