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Kofi Annan’s long legacy as an arbiter for reform at the UN

Kofi Annan, the first black secretary-general of the United Nations and 2001 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, died Saturday at the age of 80. Annan served two terms as head of the U.N., where he established a reputation as a promoter of peace and human rights. Helene Gayle, CEO of The Chicago Community Trust who worked with Annan on global AIDS issues, joins Hari Sreenivasan with more on his legacy.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Good evening and thank you for joining us.

    Nobel Peace Prize winner and former secretary-general of the United Nations Kofi Annan has died. The veteran diplomat was 80 years old and died after a short, unspecified illness according to his foundation.

    Born in Ghana, Annan was a career diplomat at the U.N., and the first secretary-general to be hired from within the organization's ranks.

    Annan served two terms as the UN's leader from 1997 to 2006, and was jointly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize with the U.N. in 2001.

    He was the first black African secretary-general

    Current secretary general Antonio Guterres said in a statement that "…Annan was the United Nations." And, "…Was a guiding force for good."

    Annan led global development efforts, including pledges to fight aids, tuberculosis, and malaria. But he also clashed with the U.S. over the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was launched without authorization from the U.N. Security Council.

    After leaving the U.N. in 2007, Annan remained involved in diplomatic efforts, including serving as an envoy in Syria in 2012.

    The NewsHour's Jeffrey Brown talked with Annan about the United Nation's role in 2012 after the publication of the former secretary-general's memoir.

  • KOFI ANNAN:

    We have a scapegoat — a scapegoat role, if you wish, and an alibi role. When things are really desperate and hopeless and you can't do anything about this, and there's a sense that something must be done, that is something usually leads to the U.N. You dump it on the U.N. And you — as a member state, you have done something. It's those incompetent people at the U.N. who are not delivering. No, and my predecessor, Boutros, used to say the letters S.G. doesn't stand for secretary-general, but scapegoat.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Joining me now from Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts via Skype is Helene Gayle, president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust and former president and CEO of CARE. First, how did you know Kofi Annan?

  • HELENE GAYLE:

    Well, I first met Kofi when I was with the U.S. government, heading global AIDS activities and then when I was at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — also worked on global AIDS — worked with him then and then in my work at CARE, continue to work with him. So over a period of a couple of decades, I had the real pleasure of knowing Kofi Annan.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What's going to be to be the long lasting legacy, especially when it comes to his work on HIV issues?

  • HELENE GAYLE:

    Well, from my perspective, one of the things that was so remarkable was that he elevated the issue of HIV and AIDS as a global issue but also one that he felt was important enough to bring before the Security Council and the General Assembly. And so it was the first time that the U.N. actually put a focus on a global epidemic because the impact of it was so far reaching. And I think it was very much in keeping with the kinds of things that he brought to the U.N.. The U.N. reform, obviously, is one of those things that he will be remembered for.

    But the fact that he started the U.N. Compact that was one of the most important landmarks around business social responsibility and how to make sure that this issue of social responsibility was embedded within the U.N. through the Global Compact and really had an impact on how global businesses thought about their responsibility beyond just their businesses. And so, you know I think there are many things and the fact that he then went on to start his foundation, which really looked at some of the issues that he had been such a leader in around global development, particularly in Africa that continued that legacy of thinking about how do you look at global issues from this broader perspective.

    The fact that he was awarded the Nobel Prize, I think elevated the U.N. in a way that had never been elevated before. So I think there's so many things that Kofi Annan will be remembered for. But I think beyond all of those accomplishments, the fact that he was such an incredible human being and that he had such dignity and in everything that he did, he brought a level of elegance and dignity to it.

    He was a humble person. He was an incredible intellect. He was somebody who brought people together. And so he was a remarkable human being in so many ways.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You know, he had mentioned in his memoirs and other places that he regrets is the Iraq war and he sees that as one of the things that he wished he could have stopped. Over the years that you've got to know him, are there other things that he was passionate about that he wished he could have done more on or that he was willing to reengage in?

  • HELENE GAYLE:

    Well, I think he always felt that as a son of Africa that he had a commitment to do all that he could to help improve conditions in Africa. And I think he through his work with the elders, through his work with the foundation, through his work with the big global collaboration AGRA, which focused on agriculture in Africa. I think these issues that really helped to highlight the importance of Africa as a growing, rapidly growing and important economy, I think were things that were near and dear to his heart. And I think he in his post secretary general years really did a lot to further the issues of development and economic development in Africa.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Helene Gayle, president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust joining us via Skype. Thanks so much.

  • HELENE GAYLE:

    Thank you.

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