Kofi Annan: heart-felt tribute to a 'great statesman'
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Kofi Annan: heart-felt tribute to a 'great statesman'

Former UN secretary-general and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi Annan died on Saturday of an undisclosed disease or illness. (AP file photo)
Former UN secretary-general and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi Annan died on Saturday of an undisclosed disease or illness. (AP file photo)

Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, wrote to me just a few weeks ago to be a member of the Global Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age that he was chairing. It is with great sadness that I have learned of his passing. The world has lost a great statesman and we who had the honour of working with him have lost a visionary leader and a wise mentor.

I first met Kofi in 1994 when he was the Under Secretary-General of the United Nations for Peacekeeping. On most mornings, we would take the cable car across the East River from our homes on Roosevelt Island and used to walk from East 57th Street to the United Nations. He was a people's leader and great listener, always wanting to learn about the work we were doing with women in the conflict affected countries, from Liberia, Kosovo to East Timor.

When Kofi Annan became Secretary-General of the United Nations, my first encounter with him as the Executive Director of the UN Women's Development Fund (UNIFEM) involved addressing violence against women. In 1997, when he was elected, this was not an issue that the UN was comfortable addressing with great visibility. When I organised a UN multi-media conference at the UN General Assembly in 1999 to urge an end to this violence and to showcase UNIFEM's work, some of his advisers told him to stay away as the topic was too controversial for many governments.

Eventually, I was informed that if the Secretary-General came it would only be for five minutes. Kofi listened to his advisers, but he made up his own mind. He not only came but was so taken by the whole event that he stayed for over an hour, listening intensely and was deeply moved. In 2001, when he was awarded the Conrad Hilton Humanitarian Prize of US$100,000, he donated the full amount to the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women that I had initiated and which was established by the General Assembly.

In 2000, there was an opportunity for me to work with the Security Council on Women, Peace and Security. Kofi supported me in this endeavour and I was able to bring women from the conflict zones to address the Security Council for the first time. As a result, the Council adopted the landmark Resolution 1325, regarded as one of the UN's most transformative and legally binding framework on peace and security.

After Sept 11 2001, the fall of the Taliban provided a test case for the Resolution and I sought to engage Afghan women in the peace process. Those on the political side of the UN were not pleased as women were seen as a "distraction" from the main challenges, but Kofi ignored this and instead included me in his team for the donor conference on Afghanistan. His support gave my team and me the courage to work with Afghan women to demand equal citizenship rights in their new constitution. In 2006, Kofi Annan visited Thailand to present the first Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in recognition of the King's "Sufficiency Economy" and his tireless work to help the poor and vulnerable.

Kofi Annan dedicated his life to tackling the world's most challenging problems, from his tireless efforts to build peace and uphold rights, including in the most devastating and intractable conflicts, such as Syria and Rakhine, to supporting transitions to democracy in many countries across the world. At a time when the world is faced with multiple wars, displacement, xenophobia and a backsliding of democratic principles, Kofi Annan's noble life and legacy will remain a guiding light for all of humanity.

Noeleen Heyzer is Member, UNSG's High Level Advisory Board on Mediation. She is a former executive director of UN Women's Development Fund and a former United Nations under secretary-general.

Noeleen Heyzer


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